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Katy Burns: The really, really wide world of sports

A cheese rolling race.

A cheese rolling race.

Competitive hole drilling? Churn carrying? Why, clearly it’s a chance once again to marvel at the wondrous variety of sports available across the globe.

This time we’re talking about the traditional rural competitions from the Basque country, a small mountainous region straddling the border between France and Spain. Our enlightenment comes courtesy of the New York Times, whose historical mission is giving us information we don’t even know we need until the Times informs us otherwise. And I view it as my duty to spread knowledge of such exploits to the loyal readers of the Monitor.

We’ve explored these peculiar folkways before. Who could forget cheese rolling? Or wife carrying? But in case you did forget, a refresher course is in order.

As we learned several years ago, cheese rolling – said to date back to pre-Roman Britain – consists of rolling huge cheeses down steep inclines. Specifically, small mobs of people chase big, round double Gloucester cheeses down Cooper’s Hill outside of Gloucester, England. Injuries often ensue. It is not a sport for the faint-hearted. Or, I suspect, the sober.

Gloucester, it’s worth noting, is also famous for shin kicking, which has taken place on Dover’s Hill near Chipping Camden since the 17th century. According to the BBC, players wear shepherd’s traditional white smocks as they “grasp each other by the shoulders and attempt to land well-timed blows to their opponents’ shins.” In days of yore, shin kicking got a bit vicious, the BBC said. “Lads used to harden their shins with hammers . . . and . . . wear iron-capped boots.” In our more namby-pamby time, though, trousers are stuffed with straw and soft shoes are mandatory.

I believe one can conclude that people in Gloucester have a desperate need for entertainment. Also, that the beer flows freely in Gloucester pubs.

And beer must play a role, I suspect, in the many places – from Estonia to Wisconsin and our neighbor Maine – where wife carrying is a competitive sport. Essentially men race across fields carrying their wives. The wives are sometimes carried fireman style, slung over husbands’ shoulders, and sometimes ride piggyback. In Estonia, wives fling their legs around their husbands’ necks and grab hold of their waists.

In Finland, the winner is paid off with his wife’s weight in – surprise! – beer.

And now we contemplate the Basque country, which appears to have the mother lode of rustic sports, including churn (or milk can) carrying, wood chopping, anvil lifting, hole drilling, sawing, hoe throwing, hay bale lifting and – a separate sport – hay bale throwing.

While one might assume that participants in these are mostly big, burly men, women bale lifters and bale throwers have their own competitions.

One of the most popular Basque sports is stone lifting, which supposedly evolved because Basque farms brought forth a lot of rocks, which farmers subsequently had to dispose of.

Interestingly, New Hampshire’s own abundant rocks mainly encouraged the building of stone walls but not a passion for the actual lifting of said stones.

Perhaps someday an enterprising historian of farmers and rocks will explain such different evolutionary paths.

But let others ponder the academic aspects of the subject of large stones and their uses. Enterprising Times reporter Dave Seminara took it upon himself – no doubt aided by a generous expense account – to travel to Basque territory, where he met Iñaki Perurena, whom Seminara called “the Michael Jordan of . . . stone lifting” at the champion’s hilltop sculpture garden.

It is there that Perurena – who’s also a butcher and the star of a Basque soap opera – maintains a museum devoted to stone lifting and other Basque sports. Dotting the landscape are huge outdoor sculptures, dominated by a 25-foot image of a stone lifter with a massive rock on his shoulder.

In the museum proper, one can enjoy a film festival of Perurena’s feats, including footage of him repeatedly lifting stones weighing more than 700 pounds. In one clip, he lifted a 589-pound stone with one hand. In another, he rolled a 465-pound stone around his neck 36 times in one minute.

To celebrate the 1,700th episode of his soap opera, Perurena said, he lifted a 212-pound stone 1,700 times in nine hours.

No word as to whether the whole nine hours of stone-lifting aired on the Basque soap opera. But as a one-time aficionado of the genre, I think I can safely say that Americans prefer that their soaps feature footage of glossy weddings of much-married divas, bad-seed children scheming to take over the family patriarch’s businesses and long-dead characters miraculously reappearing.

In an era when rolling huge cheeses down hills in England remains a popular pastime, though, I guess anything’s possible.

And can you imagine how good those stone lifters would be at wife carrying? I imagine that the beer prize would also be a real incentive to win.

We can celebrate and admire the pluck and skill that go into such traditional sports as stone lifting, hay bale throwing, cheese rolling and wife carrying.

And then we should thank our lucky stars that we have the internet. And streaming Netflix. And NASCAR. Even, heaven help us all, Dancing with the Stars.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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