At 22, Dutch pole-jumper Sytse Bokma is getting to the top of his game — literally. But on a muggy summer’s afternoon in rural northern Netherlands, things just weren’t going his way.
Time after time, he scurried up a 13-metre (43-foot) pole before losing his grip and crashing into the water with an almighty splash.
Welcome to the spectacular and age-old Frisian sport of fierljeppen.
Translated from Frisian — the second official language in The Netherlands — the word fierljeppen literally means “far-leaping”.
It’s a combination of pole vaulting and long jump. The athlete runs as fast as possible until reaching a ramp and leaping onto a carbon fibre pole, loosely anchored in the muddy bottom of a canal.
Grabbing on, the athlete tries to climb to the top of the pole, using his momentum to tip it forwards across a stretch of water up to 12 metres wide, and leap as far as possible on to a bank of specially prepared sand on the other side.
Well, that’s the theory at least.
More often than not, the jump is aborted when the pole tips left or right instead of forward or the athlete’s hands slip, resulting in a humiliating but spectacular dunk into the two-metre deep dug-out canal.
Each splash is met with a collective groan from spectators.
The athlete’s technique is then intensely discussed in Frisian, accompanied by plates filled with mayonnaise-drizzled potato fries and mugs of beer or coffee.
‘No fear of heights’
“It’s not easy,” admitted Etty Kramer, chairwoman of the fierljeppen club in the small rural village of It Heidenskip, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southwest of the Frisian provincial capital ofLeeuwarden.
“You need the explosive sprint of a short distance athlete combined with the real upper-body strength of a gymnast,” said Kramer, 51, who has been a driving force behind the sport for the last 38 years.
“Then you need concentration and balance to ensure you don’t tip in the wrong direction, but most of all, you need daring,” she told AFP.
“Oh yes”, she added, “you mustn’t be afraid of heights.”
Nobody really knows how long ago fierljeppen started as a sport, but references in Dutch literature to men jumping across ditches reach back as far as the 16th century.
Local folklore tells of a man who hid a secret message in his ditch-jumping pole before crossing through enemy lines in 1575 during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule.
Farmers for hundreds of years used the method to cross from one patch of land called a polder to another, Kramer added.
The first official fierljeppen competition was held in August 1957 in the Frisian town of Winsum. In 1978 the official Frysk Ljeppers Boun, the sport’s official federation, was born.
The sport, however, remains relatively unknown — even in the rest of The Netherlands — but was first introduced to the world in 2007 when contestants taking part in the popular US reality show “The Amazing Race” had to leap across a ditch during the Dutch leg.
Now there are about 250 men and women jumpers competing across three tiers in some 60 competitions every summer.
Together with the Frisian language, ice-skating and the ubiquitous black-and-white cattle that carry the same name as the region, fierljeppen is a source of pride in the area.
It’s therefore a bit of a sore point that the current record of 22.21 metres is held by a non-Frisian Dutchman, Jaco de Groot, who recently surpassed the long-standing winning leap of local hero, Bart Helmholt.
“At the moment they have been jumping further. Things have to change to ensure that we Frisians are the best again,” Kramer stoically observed.
Back at the competition, things weren’t going so well for Bokma, ranked in second place in the league.
Slated as one of the sport’s young and upcoming stars, he had several failed attempts that saw him landing in the drink to groans from the crowd.
Eventually Bokma finished third, behind another local favourite Ysbrand Galama who was locked in an intense battle with current Frisian champion Nard Brandsma, who posted a winning jump of 20.72 metres.
“I was not at my best today,” Bokma told AFP after the match.
“But to see the kids cheer next to the canal, that’s the best part for me because they are the future of our little sport,” he said.
“Particularly when you end up in the water!” he said. — AFP