Surprisingly, the quickest game on earth originates from a country that enjoys a national midday nap.
Jai alai, the native word for “merry festival” in Basque, was created over 300 years ago in the north of Spain, deriving from the much older sport of Basque pelota which was played since the 13th century, though its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece.
In Basque pelota, there are two teams of two players each, a goatskin ball three-fourths the size of a baseball and harder than a golf ball called the “pilota,” a front facing wall called a frontoi, more commonly known by its French name “fronton.”
With the same idea as squash, the objective of this wall-game is to return the ball off of the fronton without slowing or stopping the pace of play, and without allowing it to bounce off the floor more than once. The game can be played using a plethora of equipment to play the ball, such as a variety of shapes of pallet, a bat or even just a glove.
The rules of jai alai are almost identical. However, this derivation of Basque pelota has an alias, signifying its difference from its predecessor: Zesta punta, or “cesta punta” in Spanish, which translates to “basket tip.” In jai alai, each player is donned with a banana-shaped basket, two feet in length, inserted over the hand in such a way that it is essentially an extension of the arm.
Players use the basket to catch the ball, and fling the ball back towards the fronton at tremendous speeds. Zesta punta held the highest recorded ball speed in the Guiness Book of World Records at 302 kph (188 mph), though the ball more commonly travels at 240 kph (150 mph).
Due to the ball’s high velocity, the court is more spacious to give players more time to react. Instead of 38 metres in length, jai alai courts measure 54 metres. Players must also wear a helmet.
Along with Basque pelota, jai alai had grown at a global level since the 19th century, reaching America and the Philippines. The two locally popularized it due to their immense attraction of jai alai as a paramutual betting game—a substitute for horse or greyhound racing.
In America, the states of Florida and Connecticut were especially keen on the gambling aspect of the sport. One is still operated at the Magic City Casino near Miami. There used to be 14 frontons in the United States. Only four are left, all in Florida. The Casino at Dania Beach is hosting its second annual invitational tournament on Dec. 1.
Basque pelota, however, remains a much more popular game. In fact, it was played as an Olympic sport in the 1900 games. It has been played at the Pan American games since 1995, as it is played more seriously on this side of the world in Latin American countries, though it is played all over Europe as well.
More locally, Basque pelote’s Quebec community is concentrated in Trois-Pistoles, which has an immensely popular fronton. The pelote fever has been rampant in that town since the Canadian government erected a pelote park in 1996, the Parc de l’aventure Basque en Amérique, or PABA. Hopefully, we’ll be fortunate enough to have easier access to this beautiful cultural past-time in the not-too-distant future.