George Chiappa steps onto the field and lifts a 19-foot telephone pole to his forehead. Untrained spectators of the Texas Scottish Festival's Highland Games, which are taking place at that moment at the University of Texas in Arlington, think Chiappa is praying to the pole. But, as he will explain later in the beer tent, he is just sort of, uh, "becoming one" with it.
The 32-year-old University of Ottawa strength and conditioning coach takes a tug at his skirt before running about 20 yards with the upright pole and heaving it a whopping 10 feet, from just above his sternum.
"It's like swinging a bat," Chiappa will say afterward. "I knew I was too late on that one when I released it."
By the time his pole has flown end over end and landed at 10 o'clock, just slightly left of perfect, another guy in a skirt is becoming one with his pole.
These athletes are not cross-dressers in cleats (or in turf shoes or hiking boots). They are men who can toss a 120- to 160-pound pine pole like a spent cigarette. Theirs is one of the world's oldest sports, a descendant of an 11th-century pastime that was born when men hoisting cabers (what we would call beams) to build houses got bored and decided to see who could toss his the farthest.
To participate in today's Highland Games, a man needn't be Scottish—just athletic and kilted. "You have to wear a kilt and drink a lot of Scotch," says Harvey Barkauskas, a 44-year-old high school science teacher from Ontario, Canada, who finished fourth among six professional competitors in the caber toss in Arlington.
The Arlington edition is one of about 300 Highland Game events held each year in the United States, Canada and Europe to provide competitive outlets for some 500 kilt-clad athletes around the world.
The 5'10", 250-pound Chiappa, who was a hammer thrower until he was sidelined by a pinched nerve in his lower back in 1982, is of Italian descent, but he looks very Scottish this particular weekend because, in addition to his tube socks, turf shoes, T-shirt and countless pounds of pecs, he is wearing a hungry-man-sized plaid skirt.
The caber toss is the focal point of the Highland Games, though all participants also throw the hammer, a 28- and a 56-pound weight for distance, and toss a 16-pound sheaf of hay between two 30-foot uprights. Competitors also toss the 56-pound weight with one hand over that same goalpost, and hurl 16- and 22-pound stones as far as they can—generally 32 to 47 feet for the former, and 29 to 38 for the latter.
Out on the field, 6'1", 325-pound Harry MacDonald of London, Ont., throws what is called a 12 o'clock. That means he has heaved the caber into the air and landed it directly in front of him. "A hole in one in golf is rarer than this," says Barkauskas. "But this is a lot rarer than a strike in bowling. I think we'd all have to say it's about like hitting a home run."