What started as placing bets on farmers who could plow the fastest has evolved into an internationally-recognized sporting competition.
In Spain’s diverse regions, the misty mountainous Basque Country stands out as an outlier both culturally and topographically. Here, Spanish is rejected in favor of Euskera, one of the oldest living languages in Europe whose origins remain unknown. The Basque Country also has one of the oldest sports, too: stone lifting or “Herri Kirolak,” as it’s called in Euskeda. Herri Kirolak is one of the many rural sports that make up Harrijasotzaile, a series of physical challenges that derive from everyday pastoral tasks like tree felling or plowing that have now become officially recognized as a rural sport.
The competitive nature of the Basque people combined with their desire to keep rural traditions alive means that these simple tasks are now a bonafide part of their national heritage. Like the native Basque language, these rural sports are fiercely defended and honored. Now, town squares—ranging from Bilbao to Biarritz—fill up on weekends with spectators eager to see competitors lug, drag, and huff their way to victory in some 20+ sports that make up the Harrijasotzaile challenges.
The sports, of course, have changed dramatically from their humble origins on the hillsides of Basque farming towns. Back then, bets were placed on those who could plow a field the fastest, throw an ear of corn the furthest, and lift the heaviest boulders. Today, these rural competitions have evolved into heavily sponsored events where athletes compete on an international stage. This photo essay takes us on a journey to meet some of the sport’s protagonists who are leaving no stone unturned to keep the Basque Country’s sporting traditions alive.
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The topography of the Basque Country varies greatly from the rolling hills of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, the jagged “flysch” of the coastline of Bilbao, to the thick jungle or “Selva de España” of Navarra. The geographical topography of each region has spawned its own unique sport. In the forests of Navarra, popular sports involve wood cutting, like the trontzalar itza or arpana, in which two people use a giant saw to cut discs of wood from the end of a horizontal trunk. In contrast, the open hillsides of Bilbao and its surrounding towns have a history with stone lifting and plowing because of their agricultural past.
This is the legendary Joseba Ostolaza’s gym, where his daughter Udane Ostolaza Etxabe trains alongside her male counterparts. In the early 20th-century, regulations on the weights were introduced so that the shape of the stones used by athletes would be fixed and could serve as a reference.
The stones used until then were eventually roughened by stonemasons to make them easier to lift. Later, four geometric shapes—the cylinder, cube, sphere, and rectangle—were introduced. A cylindrical shape was used for the smallest weights between 8.9 and 10 arrobas, which is the same as 100 to 125 kilos in imperial measurements.
The cubic and rectangular stones oscillate between 10 and 17 arrobas, corresponding to 125 kilos and 212.5 kilos, respectively. The spherical stone, commonly called a ball, is usually 9 and 10 arrobas.
Udane is just 16 and is one of few women who compete in stone lifting. Following in her father’s footsteps, she has broken all records for her age group. She trains daily with her father in Orio, where she was born. By age 10, Udane was able to pick up a 20-kilo stone in Pamplona, and by 16, she could pick up a 101 KG rectangular in a single two-minute round.
Ousmane Dramé of Senegalese descent is one of the Basque Country’s star lifters. Last year, he made history at the San Roke de Deba festivities. In an exhibition of txingas, Dramé broke a record dating back to the late 80s, held by the mutrikuarra José Luis Elorza Pikua, who made a 40-meter run in the Alto del Kalbario. Ousmane surpassed that mark with a record of 51 meters covered with 113 kilograms in each hand—226 in total. Txingas is another rural sport where a competitor moves between two points holding a designated weight in each hand. Ousmane says that through participating in the Herri Kirolak, he can assimilate into what is usually a relatively closed society.
This is Gorka Etxeberria, a local champion from Oria, posing with the traditional rock that athletes have been lifting for centuries. Its smooth surface makes it very difficult to grip, so much so that competitors put a form of natural glue on their hands to make it easier to raise onto the shoulder. In stone lifting, the competitors take turns lifting and dropping a stone multiple times within a designated time— typically two or three minutes. Mieltxo Saralegi holds the record for the heaviest lift at 329 kg.
Herri Kirolak and Harri-jasotze have always been seen as male-dominated sports, and throughout history, there have been very few female competitors. However, this has started to change thanks to women like Karmele Gisasola.
“When I was little, I did not dare to compete because I did not see women in the town squares competing,” explains Gisasola. “My brother and my cousin did start as children. At 17, my father encouraged me, and so I started with my cousin. We must not forget all those women who, like my [grandma], did not have the opportunity to go and show what they could do.” In October 2020, Karmele won the Bizkaia Women’s Stone-lifting Championship, ahead of Garazi Arruti in Berriz.