Mad axemen bet 6,000 euros

Basque sports derive from everyday rural life

Basque sports derive from everyday rural life

We have each paid 30 euros to watch a man run 89 times round a bullring alone. The other competitor dropped out, but Xabier still has to run the 8.9km to the finish line in order to claim the prize. It is, as the newspaper says next day, un reto descafeinado – a decaffeinated finish.

When the competition started an hour and a half ago, there was much more adrenalin in the air. 6,000 euros is at stake in a personal bet between Ander Erasun and local lad Xabier Zaldua. They are to chop 10 logs and then run 10 km. Xabier is 32 and Ander only 18, which means that as the mid-day start nears, Ander is bookies’ favourite.

And this kind of bet is taken seriously. Deadly seriously. In March Joxe Mendizabal, a former champion aizkolari (axeman), came out of retirement. After the competition – which he lost – the doctor declared that he was fit to go out for lunch. He never arrived, collapsing on the restaurant steps: his heart suddenly stopped beating.

aizkolari-azpeitiaThe competition takes place in the Plaza de Toros in Azpeitia  before 700 spectators. Mostly male and well over 40, many wear the regulation black beret. Our two bulls in the centre of the ring have a series of kanaerdikos (logs with a circumference of 54 inches – 1.37m) in front of them. They each leap onto their first log, standing with their feet apart. The axes flash up and down and the V-shaped cut grows rapidly. Ander clearly makes his own decisions, but Xavier is guided by his trainer who taps the log with a stick to show where he should chop next. Just as it seems that they risk cutting off their toes they change sides and after five minutes they have both finished their first log. There are another nine to go. Ander edges ahead but seems stiff, nervous. The crowd is attentive but not yet tense, with most of the encouragement going to the local lad: “Chabi, Chabi!” they cry.

raceAnder finishes the logs well before Xabier and has already sprinted – too fast – one and a half times round the edge of the arena before Xabier joins him. They run together for a while and then, to a burst of applause, Xabier passes him. Another turn of the ring and suddenly Ander starts to wobble and within 20m has hobbled to the side and is leaning dejectedly on the barrier. He is shaking his head, looking white, a paleness reflected in the face of his trainer. He is led away to the first aid tent.

Later I ask Maika, one of the few female aizkolariak, what will happen now. How can a farmer’s son afford to pay such a bet?  He can’t, she says, but the takings from the show need to be taken into account. Each of the aizkolaraki will get half. Then they will settle the bet between them. So Ander will finish up with 4,000 euros and Xavier with 16,000 euros. “I don’t think it is healthy,” she says, “there is too much money involved.”

Report on the competition (in Spanish)

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