Cantabrian Traditional Sports: Shadows of the Olympic Spirit in the North of Spain

Today I am going to speak about a topic that is most likely unknown to you: traditional sports and games from my mother land, Cantabria, in the north of Spain. As the general theme for this month was determined as the Olympics, Sports & History, I thought, “You know, I actually do not have a clue of the sort of sports we are good at, even if they are important sports or not”. That was a lie though, in the moment I started thinking properly I did realise that in my region as in the rest of the country certain sports are very popular, like football, handball, cycling and so on. Nonetheless, I thought, those were boring thing everyone knew about. Where was the thrill? So I had a walk about the bay, the bay in here it is beautiful and always full of boats…and that was the moment when inspiration came in. Due to this I am going to proceed to speak about a branch of an Olympic sport we “cantabros” are crazy about, especially those of us who are from the coast, which is rowing.


As you all probably know, rowing has a millenarian tradition. No one can be certain when it originated, but we can be sure that the reason behind it was for fishing and later for transportation. So, in essence, rowing was a tool for work and everyday life. However, as it usually happens in history tools change in nature and purpose to become something else, and often this is the case for sports too. Thus, in late 17th/early 18th century England rowing became a pastime proper, something that the lord would go out and do as a competition. Later, in the 19th century the first clubs and associations related to his sport were created. By 1896 it was accepted within the programme of Olympic modalities for the games of Athens, and a century later, in 1976 the female branch was introduced in the games at Montreal. Nowadays there are fourteen different tests of rowing in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the type of rowing that is commonly known to everyone, the Olympic rowing, is not the one I am referring to.


Here in the North of Spain we practice what it is called fixed seat rowing. In case you do not know the terminology here is an example so you can picture it. Imagine the type of rowing the fishermen from old times, or the Roman slaves had to do. Well, that is exactly what I am talking about, but in modern times. This is a very tough exercise, that requires a lot of fitness and good coordination. Just so you know a bit better about this modality here are some facts:

  • The oars are held to their support (called here tolete) by a braided ring of rope.
  • The boats used are called Traineras, and the crew is made of thirteen men plus the guide-leader of the ship: six men in the left side, six in the right, the thirteenth member at the back and the guide at the front standing up.
  • The competitions called Regatas, take place at the sea, in a delimited area by floating red balls, forming a circuit with twists and straight lines.
    • Traditionally, the typical Traineras were tough, made of cedar and beech wood. They are about twelve metres long and 200 kg.


We are not certain since when this has been considered a sport. However it is known though, that there have been Regatas hold in Santander since 1856. In fact, a very special one took place in 1861 in honour to a visit made to the city by Queen Isabel II. And the reason why this type of rowing is not as popular lies most likely in the fact the toughness of it, the quite archaic ways, the fact that even though it is meant to be a sport, it still shares many characteristics than when it was a tool for work.

But that is how we are here, us the northerners of Spain, the irreducible Celts the Romans and the moors had so much trouble with. That roughness so typical of our ancestors still hold up to the new generations, especially in the country side. And if you do not believe it, maybe I can show you by another traditional sport: Tiro de Cuerda – Pulling the Rope.


Perhaps you have played something similar as a kid. This game consists on two teams of eight players, placed each at one end of the rope and pulling from it. The winner is the team that manages to make the mark on the rope pass to the side of the field. Simple, crude and rough. Well will you believe me if I told you this actually is a very old sport, and very well-known not only in the north of Spain, not only in the Iberian peninsula as a whole, but even in places far away like India? Furthermore, could you believe this was an Olympic sport? Surprise, surprise, it was within the Olympic programme from the year 1900 to 1920, and technically is an Olympic sport but has not been put within the calendar of events since then!


Just so you realise about the actual seriousness of this practice, there is an international federation (the TWIT) which organises world championships every two years. Moreover, this game is part of the set that configures the Rural Olympics of Añora (Andalucia), an organisation that tries to promote the traditional old-fashioned games of our people.


So, here you have the two Olympic Cantabrian Games and a bit of their history and tradition. If you liked it I hope you wait a bit and see my next update which would show a few more games from my region, more traditional ones, but still with a charming history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s