Former Olympic sport thrives in tiny Quebec town
By Lindsey Craig
Trois-Pistoles, a town of 3,500 on the St. Lawrence River, hosts a pelote Basque tournament each summer that welcomes teams from France. Above, Martin Pettigrew, centre, gives it his all in the final match of the tournament, as his partner, Éric Santerre, right, readies for the next play. (Photo courtesy of Denis Pelletier)
Pelote Basque hasn’t been an Olympic sport since 1900 in Paris. And while it’s vastly unknown in Canada and the United States, it’s alive and thriving in the tiny town of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec.
It was a demonstration sport at the Olympics in 1924, 1968 and 1992 (when women came on board for the first time), but that’s it. The game has elements of handball, tennis, squash and — most recognizably in North America — as the gambling game known as Jai Alai.
While the only outdoor court in North America is in Trois-Pistoles, the sport has been played in other parts of Quebec. Above, students of Quebec’s Laval University, 1939, mark out a pelote Basque court. (Kurt Hutton/Getty Images)
It’s a racquet sport that originated in the south of France and north of Spain. It came to Quebec along the St. Lawrence River with European whale hunters in the late-1500s. There are pelote Basque enthusiasts in more than 73 countries around the world, and, thanks to Trois-Pistoles, a town of 3,500 nestled on the St. Lawrence River- Canada is one of them.
In 1996, to honour the region’s history, the Quebec and Canadian governments constructed a museum and pelote Basque facility (Parc de l’aventure Basque en Amerique, or PABA), the only one of its kind in North America, in Trois-Pistoles. The pelote Basque association (Club de pelote Basque de Trois-Pistoles) has 150 members, including men, women and children from seven to 77 years old.
Trains after midnight
The president of the club, and one of the most enthusiastic members, is Martin Pettigrew, a 36-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed father of two who works for the town. The former truck driver often trains at the club in the quiet hours after midnight because the club is too busy to find decent court time during the day.
Near the foot of rue du Park, bright lights illuminate the massive green court where a solitary Pettigrew works out. At 5-foot, 9-inches, 190 pounds, he hurls and retrieves a small white ball against an equally massive red wall: Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
Pettigrew represents Canada on the world stage in an annual tournament in France.(Photo courtesy of Martin Pettigrew)
Pettigrew represents Canada on the world stage as one of our top pelote Basque players.
He doesn’t know if the sport will be in the Olympics again, but said if it is, he’d jump at the chance to compete.
28 sports, 302 events
However, according to David Wallechinsky, author of the Complete Book on Summer Olympics, such chance is unlikely.
Wallechinsky said demonstration sports were removed from the Olympics after 1992, in effort to make the size of the Summer Games more manageable.
The Summer Olympics has typically outnumbered its winter counterpart. In 2006, for instance, the Winter Games saw athletes compete in seven sports, with 84 events — the Beijing Olympics will involve 28 sports involving 302 events.
With the IOC’s focus on shrinking the Summer Games, Wallechinsky said even with pelote Basque’s Olympic history and worldwide interest, it would be “extremely difficult” to add it to the Olympic roster.
The court in Trois-Pistoles is so busy, Pettigrew often trains after midnight. Above, an afternoon game between local players.(Lindsey Craig/CBC Sports)
“If karate can’t get into the Olympics, then sports like pelote Basque or bowling, they’re not going to get in either,” he said.
No matter the fate of his sport, however, Pettigrew’s dedication persists. “I have played hockey and baseball but pelote Basque brings me more success and satisfaction,” he said.
It was almost 10 years ago, at the age of 27, when Pettigrew first stepped on the court in Trois-Pistoles. One swing of the racquet, he said, had him hooked.
“Honestly, it was hard but I had some ability and continued to practice,” he said. “It was really easy for me to fall in love with it.”
Played on large, outdoor court
Pelote Basque is played on a large, outdoor court. Like racquetball, it’s played off a large wall. The ball is rubber, weighs 45 grams and looks a bit like a golf ball.
Two teams of two players each (one forward, one defender) compete for points by hitting the ball against a front wall, also called a “fronton.” A point is scored when one allows the opposition to let the ball bounce more than once, or it bounces off the court.
While pelote Basque is similar to other racquet sports, there are defining features that set it apart.
“The court is much larger and longer than in tennis, so you need to have better cardio and more strength,” Pettigrew said. “Exchanges are averaging between three and four minutes long, so you need more training. You need to be in really good shape and have great speed and focus. That’s the most important thing. To win the game, to win the tournament, you have to have your focus.”
The racquet, called a “pala,” is made of hardwood from the sport’s native land- the Basque region of northern Spain. Unlike a tennis racquet, the pala has no netting and is much heavier, which requires more strength to hit. In the version Pettigrew plays, the racquet handle is flat, unlike its rounded cousins elsewhere in the world.
“That’s why I sometimes get blisters,” he said, adding that quick lateral movements mean knees and ankles are most vulnerable to injury.
The roots of Pelote Basque reach to ancient Greece, France and Spain. Today, it’s a sport with contingents in countries such as Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, the United States — and little Trois-Pistoles (which has one school and two stop lights).
Canadians compete in France
With a much bigger court than in tennis, players have to cover more ground. Heavier racquets also mean lots of strength is required. (Photo courtesy of Martin Pettigrew)Pettigrew is involved at the international level. He and partner Éric Santerre represent Canada each year in a top-ranked competition in the south of France. Since the internationally competed version of the sport is different than that practised in Trois-Pistoles, Pettigrew and Santerre must adjust to the international game.
“The court is longer and larger than ours, so it’s more difficult, but we finished fourth place,” Pettigrew said, referring to last year’s result.
The Trois-Pistoles club hosts an annual event in July that attracts teams from France, Montreal and St. Pierre and Miquelon. Pettigrew helps in welcoming players, taking them on tours of the region and hosting dinners at his home.
Last summer, he and Santerre battled a team from France in the final match, falling 35-27.
But for Pettigrew, it wasn’t a defeat.
“The other team is in the top 15 in France. We did everything we could- yes, we lost, but it was a victory for us,” he said, adding that it was difficult playing against friends he’d made during the tournament.
“We were able to keep a wall between us, stay focused on the game and forget the jokes we’d had together,” he said.
While he enjoys the camaraderie the tournament creates, it’s the attention drawn to the game that’s most important.
“We want to put the sport on the map in Quebec and Canada,” Pettigrew said.
It may not become an Olympic sport, but his enthusiasm is contagious. Teams from California recently contacted Pettigrew expressing interest in competing in Trois-Pistoles this summer.