Basque Fact of the Week: Tug of War or Sokatira

Get some kids together and throw in a rope and it won’t be long before they are trying to pull each other from one side to another. Tug of war is one of the most basic and raw competitions you can imagine and is a fixture at Basque festivals across the western United States. But, did you know that there are international competitions, pitting teams from across the globe in a quest to show they are the best at tug of war? And that the Basque Country just hosted the world championships in tug of war?

The Goiherri team in action. Photo from Deia.
  • Tug of war, as a competition, is as old as humanity. Etruscan friezes show teams pulling on ropes. And in The Iliad, Zeus brags how he could pull all the other gods put together. Tug of war was even an event in the original Olympic Games held in Ancient Greece and in the first few modern Olympics. It was played all over Europe, and indeed across the world in places like Cambodia and India.
  • While tug of war is as old as time in the Basque Country, it may be connected to the daily work of sailors, who had to tug boats into dock, or whalers that had to pull their catch to port. And organized competitions go back at least a century when, in 1915, Sokatira contests were held in the Atocha soccer stadium.
  • In the Basque Country, there are numerous clubs that participate in Sokatira, or tug of war, competitions. These competitions come in two varieties. There are open matches, in which anyone can participate, and closed or more regulated events in which there are strict weight categories, based on the weight of the team. Teams consist of 8 competitors. Only the last one can wrap the rope around their bodies — for everyone else, they can’t support the rope with any part of their body except their hands.
  • Over the last three years, about 50 different teams from all over Euskal Herria have competed in the Sokatira Euskadi Championship, representing all seven provinces of the Basque Country. As a national team, the Basque Country first competed in 1978, but under the name of Spain. They won the gold medal in 1991. After sitting out the 2005-2008 competitions to support the formation of an official Euskal Selekzioa team, the Basque Country was formally recognized as a full member of the Tug of War International Federation in 2014 and won their first gold as their own team in 2016.
  • The Tug of War world championships (Sokatira Mundiala) were held in September in Getxo, just outside of Bilbao. Teams from around the world, including multiple teams from the Basque Country, competed in a number of different classes, involving different weight classes and genders, including men’s, women’s, and mixed competitions. The Basque Country won the 560 kg men’s and the 500 kg women’s titles, and placed in a couple other events. The best teams move on to the World Games, to be held in 2022 in Alabama.

Primary sources: Sokatira Mundiala; Estornés Zubizarreta, Mikel Garikoitz; Etxezaharreta, Xarlot; Aguirre Franco, Rafael. SOKA-TIRA. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at:; Tug of War, Wikipedia; Basque rural sports, Wikipedia; Sokatira,

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