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The story behind heavy athletics

By: Katie Ward Beim-Esche


An integral part of the Scottish Games are the nine athletic events designed to test the strength and balance of participants.

Centuries of games have promoted Scotland’s rich cultural heritage around the world. According to VisitScotland.org, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, “was so impressed by a Highland display he saw at the 1889 Paris Exhibition that he introduced the hammer throw, shot put and the tug o’ war to his competition.”

The St. Louis games will involve around 60 athletes, all properly attired in sport-friendly kilts participating in those traditional games.

Experience the legendary events firsthand while watching professionals compete.

“At the festival, everything that goes on is considered part of the Scottish Games, including piping, dance and athletics,” explained Charlie Rivers, the Games’ former athletic director. “What we do is considered heavy athletics. It’s more what we think of as a sport.”

Rivers has been an avid competitor for a decade. He helped host the 2015 Masters World Championships in St. Louis, which involved 150 athletes from 12 countries, and recently he competed in the 2017 championships in Iceland. Together with a historian friend, Rivers has learned much about the history behind each event. It all comes back to friction between Scotland and England.

“Most of the events were designed with a military background to them,” Rivers said. “There was a time when England sort of held Scotland hostage to some degree, and it was illegal for Scots to do any kind of workout or practice that could be thought of as military. Just like a lot of cultures did the same thing, you hid the training in sport, in dance or something.

“A lot of the events were a way for a young guy to stay in shape and build skills he might need in battle, without getting in trouble.”

The one-handed “weight for distance” event, which became the Olympics’ two-handed hammer throw, challenges competitors to whirl a long wooden pole with a heavy metal ball on the end.

Historically, English armies advanced in a wide, shield-fronted line, Rivers explained. “For the common people to defeat that, you’ve got to break them apart,” he said. “They would literally run at the formation, spin and hurl the heavy weight into these guys, trying to manually knock them apart.”

Training to keep one’s balance while spinning with a very heavy weight develops a great deal of grip strength, so using a large ax or sword would become second-nature.

Likewise, the Braemar stone and open stone throws are the equivalent of shot put with large rocks.

“In Scotland, everything’s a rock. To clear a field, you’re moving a lot of stones,” Rivers said. “Military-wise, the object was again to break the line. Soldiers would come up and heave large stones over the top to try to knock down guys two and three rows back.”

When not up against this event, the English soldiers enjoyed it so much that they took it up themselves. But when transferred to the Middle East, stones were in short supply, so soldiers began using cannonballs – the antecedent for modern shot put balls.

The “weight over bar” event has athletes heave a 40- to 50-pound weight over what looks like a pole vault upright. This is a direct descendant of a soldier throwing a large grappling hook up and over a castle wall.

In the world-famous caber toss, competitors hold a tree-length log vertically, then take off running and flip the log end-over-end, trying to land the log along the same line as it began. This has less to do with throwing ladders against a wall, Rivers said, than loggers getting logs into deep water to go downstream, “or maybe just a brotherly challenge from guys with too much Scotch.”

The tug o’ war is a Highland classic. On Saturday, don’t miss the tug o’ war contest between first responders, benefiting The BackStoppers Inc. Policemen and firefighters face off in what is expected to be an intense, exciting contest.

Just for kids: At the St. Louis games, children age 10 and under can participate in the Kilted Kids’ Sprint, a 1-to 3-lap race. Kilts are encouraged but not required for wee racers; however, some tartan or a Scottish shirt is required.

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