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
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."
Barkauskas, who got involved in the Highland Games 13 years ago
when a strength coach suggested he give it a try, says that in
his country, some of the sports' participants are former
Canadian Football League players. Many of them are not Scottish,
In Arlington on this June weekend, a good 20,000 people have
stopped by to see these 16 athletes, including 10 amateurs, do
their thing, according to Trish Matthews, the festival's
director of athletics. In 1990 the Canadian town of Maxville,
Ont., built a special field for the Highland Games, and crowds
at events in Canada and California have been known to exceed
40,000 over two days. A few major league baseball teams didn't
enjoy that kind of attendance over two consecutive home games
But the prize money is minimal. "We might get $700 if we win,"
says Chiappa. "That may cover travel and entry expenses. Any
extra goes toward training." Training tends to include running
and more caber throwing on local high school fields or in public
"You have to do weight work, but can't only do weight work,"
says MacDonald, who for the last nine years has made his living
as a professional Highland Games athlete and who won the caber
toss at the North American Championships in Fergus, Ont., in
August. "You have to do aerobic activity as well."
"A lot of guys even use camcorders to record other guys and try
to copy their technique," says Barkauskas. "Or they record
themselves to work on their own technique."
Like Chiappa, many Highland Games athletes in North America are
former amateur weight throwers. All are colorful, and they are
nothing if not dead ringers for NFL linemen--from their huge,
well-toned bodies to their beer-guzzling gullets.
In an Italian restaurant the evening before the caber toss took
place, a young woman approached the table where Chiappa,
MacDonald, Barkauskas and caber-toss judge Mike Frazier were
sitting. "Are y'all football players?" she asked excitedly.
They told her they weren't.
This foursome convenes at 15 to 20 events a year, most of them
in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. "Everywhere we
go they want to know if we're football players, and what we wear
under our kilts," MacDonald muttered, volunteering that he wears
spandex under his.
"Well, y'all are athletes, right?" the woman continued in a
perky Texas drawl.
They answered half-honestly, one of them telling her they were
in the prison rodeo.
"They think we're all football players," MacDonald said, "except
for Frazier. They usually think he's [former Philadelphia
Phillie third baseman] Mike Schmidt."
Frazier is really just the guy who wears a Texas Ranger cap and
red-striped tube socks with his kilt and charts the action.
After the final toss in the caber event on Sunday, which
MacDonald wins with a total of 14 points, 11 better than Al
Meyers's second-place performance, the victor and his buddies
gather under a large tent. Sweaty in their baseball caps and
muscle shirts, they reminisce about the tartan trail that led
them from being star athletes of one kind or another to talking
about skirt sizes.
"Caber tossing satisfies a lot of the need for competition in
us," says Chiappa as his compadres exchange turf footwear for
shower shoes and opt for cigars over cabers. "In 1981 someone
suggested I try this. I made $25 in a caber toss in Maxville,
and the Canadian Track and Field Association told me I had to
put it in a trust or I would be considered a pro." That made his
decision to quit throwing the hammer the next year easier.
Chiappa, who played on the offensive line for the University of
Ottawa from 1981 through '85, became a regular Highland Games
participant after his football eligibility ran out.
While it is common enough for former weight throwers to become
Highland Gamesmen, the progression tends to stop there.
"Sometimes guys might hit a beer-keg toss at a Renaissance
festival," says Frazier, "but that's about it."
Despite all the enthusiasm that athletes and spectators have for
caber throwing, there is not a lot of interest among potential
sponsors. "I wrote Nike about us," MacDonald says, "and they
didn't even know what the sport was."
"Frisbee dogs," Chiappa adds. "ESPN2 carries Frisbee dogs but
not pro caber tossing. I think they also televise that
volleyball where the guys on the Bud commercial play the women."
Some North Americans get occasional support from a liquor
distributor or a logging company, and MacDonald recently found a
sponsor in Basic Training Plus, a company that makes diet
supplements for weightlifters. For the most part, though,
Highland Gamesmen are on their own.
Caber throwers usually have to buy their poles. "Some of us have
our own," says Barkauskas, "but I left mine in the park and the
Public Utilities Commission people cut it up." In Canada the
tossers go to logging camps to buy poles. In Arlington, Frazier
and some of the competitors went to a local hardware store in
search of one. "The man said 'Do you guys need some cement for
this?'" Frazier recalls. "He couldn't believe we were planning
to throw it."
After 14 years in this game, though, Chiappa and his pals have
made peace with their position in the sports world. "We're used
to being misunderstood," he says.
The last story Jennifer Briggs wrote for SI was about
COLOR PHOTO: J. RICK KASKI Under Frazier's watchful eye, Chiappa launched a log. [Mike Frazier watching George Chiappa heaving log]
COLOR PHOTO: DEBORAH EVERETT MacDonald heaved his 56-pound weight heavenward and won the pro division with a toss of 41'2". [Harry MacDonald tossing caber]