Jai Alai is advertised as the world’s fastest sport. For those of you who might correct me by saying that Formula One is faster, I am only talking about human powered sports.
In Jai Alai, a ball (pelota) is hurled using a curved scoop attached to the right arm at a granite wall (cencha) at speeds approximating 188 mph. Please note that all players in this game have to be right handers. The ball moves at such speed, players often get injured when the ball hits them, and some have even died.
This is a variation of Basque Ball, which as the name indicates was devised in the Basque area of Spain, about 300 years ago; the words “Jai alai” translate as “merry festival” in the native Basque language.
The courts are called frontons, and after the game was taken to Cuba from Spain, at the turn of the 20th century,it travelled from there, to Florida. The Miami Fronton, which is nearly 90 years old, is the world’s largest fronton.
Gambling forms a big part of the game which is played round the year in Florida. The game went into decline in the late eighties when a players’ strike in Florida that lasted two full years led to a decline in betting. In recent years, the game has been marketed aggressively leading thereby to its revival as a betting sport.
The equipment used to play the sport include a special uniform comprising a coloured shirt, white trousers and rubber-soled shoes and a red sash called a faja. That apart, players use a wicker scoop worn on the right hand, called a cesto, and a hard ball (called the pelota) made of Brazilian rubber at the core wrapped with twine and in turn by goatskin.
The walls are made of granite so as to withstand the constant pounding of the ball thereby indicating how hard the ball is. Helmets have also been worn since 1968 when a player hit on the head by the ball slipped into a coma from which he did not recover for six months.
The court, called a cancha, is made of three granite walls, and a high ceiling of wire mesh, enclosing the playing area in which the players position themselves, with walls to front, back and left of them. Spectators, seated on the right, are protected by a wire mesh.
There are fourteen horizontal lines, the one nearest to the front wall marked number one, while the farthest is numbered 14. Lines four, seven and eleven are marked “overserve”, “underserve” and “serve”.
The rules are a combination of handball and squash. The server uses the cesta to hurl the pelota on the wall; the pelota must on rebound fall between lines four and seven, or else the other team (a single player or a pair) wins the point. If the serve is legal the other team must catch the pelota with the cesta and hurl it back against the wall, in a single motion.
The game is played by eight teams in a round robin format; while two teams are on court the others line up to await their turn. Whenever a team loses a point, it goes to the back of the line, while the team at the head replaces it. The team winning 7 or 9 points first wins.
Coming back to the question, is Jai Alai really the fastest sport? In fact, no. The speed of a badminton shuttle has been recorded at 332 kmph, making it the fastest ever human powered sport.