"The standing joke is, the last person who called it a [skirt] was kilt," says Doug Steiger, a tattooed, 280-pound North Royalton firefighter. He is one of the, um, kilt-clad men who will be tossing around 20-foot poles, monstrous stones, and super-heavy hammers at the Ohio Scottish Games, taking place Saturday at Oberlin College.
"For the most part, the best games in the world are on this continent," says Mark Valenti. The Lorain resident is the 10th-ranked highland games athlete in the nation. But he draws neither the dollars nor attention garnered by pampered ballplayers. And "they're never going to talk about me on Jim Rome's show," he admits.
A precursor to discus throwing and strongman competitions, the highland games -- the oldest sport in existence next to the Olympics, notes Valenti -- arose in the 10th century and include a range of events: the caber toss (heaving a giant pole, which can be up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds); hammer, stone, and weight throws; and the sheaf toss, in which a pitchfork is used to fling 20-pound bundles of hay over a bar (think of pole vaulting, but with giant bales of hay).
And, yes, competitors in the highland games don the traditional garb of kilt and knee-length hose. The former, Steiger helpfully adds, was originally worn for the sake of fertility -- "To keep all the parts cooler."
Proving that they are more than just brawn, the athletes steep themselves in Scottish history. To wit, the caber might have been used to breach castle walls in medieval times, Valenti explains. Steiger, however, speculates that it derived from the need to ford rivers.
"The events came about because the English wouldn't let the Scots train with traditional military weaponry," Steiger says. "So the Scots trained with unconventional things -- the stones, the hammers." No wonder the guys in Braveheart are so pissed off.