Combat de l’Echasse d’Or Namur Reviews
Fight for the Golden Stilt Sep 20, 2009
The Fight for the Golden Stilt has been held in Namur each year since at least 1411. The battle is held between the Melans (with yellow and black stilts) and the Averesses (with red and white stilts). It is not just an ancient tradition, it is a serious sporting event, and the most riveting I have ever watched. The aim of the game is to knock the other person of their stilts by using your body and stilts, until one team is victorious.
The two teams, dressed in red and white, march into Place Saint-Aubain on their metre-high stilts. They do a lap of the square and then face off against each other, twenty per team. I had expected a fast rush, a bunch of knock-downs and it would all be over. It was nothing of the sort. At the start it seemed more like the formal dance of the Brolgas, two teams of storks parading in formation, weaving in and out and making a fabulous display through synchronisation. Then you start to see the pattern, and it isn’t like storks at all, more like two packs of wild dogs, or a pride of lions stalking a herd of wildebeest. The weaving and ducking was all part of a strategy to peel off a weakling from the pack, where they can be surrounded and knocked down while outnumbered. There appeared to be blockers and attackers to isolate and defeat, and also defenders who were on the look-out and would run over on their stilts to back-up their team. The only exceptions were two young boys, one on each team, who were allowed to battle each other without interruption, the winner only being targeted in defence, an unwritten code of conduct.
The typical attack was to balance on one stilt and then lash out at the opponent’s with the other. Body slamming would be used to disorientate, but hands were always kept on the upper extension of the stilt – by rule of practical necessity I do not know. The duelers were most at risk when attacking, as they would be standing on a single stilt, so two or three walkers together tended to be safe. These attacks were lighting fast jabs, mostly exploratory and unsuccessful, although one dueler had his stilts swept out from underneath him so quickly that he hit the concrete floor head first and the paramedics rushed in to treat his concussion.
The other attack used was to lock stilts with another walker, like stags with locked horns you would see the unmoving battle of strength until they both retreated under threat of destabilisation or one walker managed to knock off the other. These bouts only lasted thirty seconds to a minute before the team defence flowed in.
For half an hour the battle continued with regular knock-downs, until only the best of the best were left, seven Melans (yellow and black) against five Averesses (red and white stilts). I had expected it to finish rapidly once there was a numerical discrepancy, but the agility and dexterity of the remaining competitors was astounding. One small older bald man on the Averesses side was remarkable in escaping attack, being knocked almost to the ground before sweeping his stilts out wide to gain footing and leaping out of the fray. He was only taken down when a Melan lunged bodily at him and intertwined their stilts, a one-for-one trade-off that greatly aided the Melan. Another Melan performed the stunning feat of having his stilt knocked off, then crouching low on one stilt to catch the falling stilt with his free foot, flicking it up to his hand and refitting it, all while being attacked on his other stilt.
Finally, after fifty minutes it was down to 5:1, the Melan lead unbeatable. The final Averesses held on for another ten minutes before the Melan claimed victory. The Fight for the Golden Stilt had still not finished, however – the Melan turned on each other in a rough, yet cordial, melee, which resulted in the final man left standing pulling off one stilt and holding it high in the air in victory!
The Fight for the Golden Stilt is held every year in Namur on the third Sunday of September, with the previous week including many selection bouts to determine the composition of the final team. The event and all commentary is done in French, but the game is enjoyable simply for the athletic display. A free grandstand is available but packed, spectators should arrive half an hour early.
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