Wednesday, Jan. 2, 11 a.m. ET

Why We Compete

Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; 10:00 AM

The Washington Post's Eli Saslow will be online Wednesday, Jan. 2 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Why We Compete, a series exploring why sports endure and what they mean to people. In Part Eight: Tradition, he writes about a small Scottish town where residents participate in what is perhaps the oldest and most physical sport in the world.

Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.


Eli Saslow: So, that's it. We meet here on-line for the last time to talk about The Why We Compete series. I'll try not to let emotions get the best of me during our chat, but...ahh, what the heck. It's been a wonderful year, and I had a blast doing all eight stories. In the course of this series, I got engaged, discovered some great Texas country artists, made six trips to Cumberland, grew a beard, shaved, and grew a beard again. We traveled to watch people Compete in American Samoa, the Orkney Islands, Mexico, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Nevada -- twice. A ton of talented people helped put together each package: Greg Manifold, Bonnie Berkowitz, Matt Bonesteel, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, Deb Lindsey and a host of others.

The final trip, to Kirkwall, might have been the most memorable in the series for me. Photographer Jon Newtown and I spent some great time touring around the islands and saw some great scenery that nearly made me forget I was freezing to death. We also spent plenty of time hanging out with locals in pubs, enjoying the occassional "wee dram", although also refusing plenty before 11 a.m. And the ba' itself was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle to watch.

No surprise...I've heard that the New Year's Day ba' again went to the Uppies. The Doonie drought continues for another year.

Anyway, on to the questions. Thanks for reading the series, and please e-mail me anytime at


Takoma Park, Md.: A terrific read! I enjoyed the whole "Why We Compete" series, but this was the best. The story mentioned that they attempted to have a woman's ba' back in the 1940s. Was that because most of the men were away at war?

Eli Saslow: Thanks so much for the nice note. I'm thrilled you liked the series.

The ba' did have a few thin men's games during the war, but the women's ba' is sort of an unrelated story. The women started playing in addition to the men -- not to fortify that game during war-time -- and I heard some pretty amusing stories about the women's ba'. Not too many women showed up to play, but those who did took it very seriously. One woman actually brought scissors, and there were rumors of involuntary haircuts being given in the scrum. Both games lasted for only 30 minutes or so, but specators said that the women's ba' had plenty of violence. There are some women in Kirkwall who still miss it. Photographer Jon and I watched a few women cheering for the men's game so passionately, so violently that we couldn't help but think: Geez, a women's ba' here would still be pretty interesting. Maybe one day they'll bring it back.


New Bedford, Mass.: Happy New Year.

Wow! That was an exciting story -- I haven't been this captivated since my Medieval History class. I taste a movie in the making, to include the tradition/skill in crafting the ba'. Thank you.

Eli Saslow: Thank you. What a nice note. One problem with a movie about the ba' -- unless, of course, it's a documentary: How in the world would they find enough stunt doubles to mimic a scrum? Because if I'm a real actor -- you know, a highly-paid star -- there's no way in the world I'm submitting myself to that kind of torture. Being in the middle of that thing would be straight up miserable.


Eli Saslow: That leads me to a little riff here: I'm really, really glad this wasn't a first-person series, because I'm not sure that I would have wanted (or been able) to compete in many of the things I've written about here. Some internal office debate has helped me order the five stories (minus the two football pieces and the dog show) into a list of which ones I would least like to take part in. Please feel free to add to this debate:

5) The Ultimate Game golf: Sure, I'm bad at golf and I'd be publicly humiliated. But I could deal with that.

4) I like to drive fast, but driving 800 mph in Steve Fossett's car would not end well for me. I'll stick to 80 mph in my Pontiac Grand Am, thanks.

3) The Barkley Marathon would have left me lost, soaking and sobbing in the woods.

2) The ba' would have crushed my ribs and made me HOPE to drop unconscious.

1) BASE jumping. No way. Never.


NW D.C.: The photos of the Ba were fantastic! How did the photographer get so close to the mayhem (especially the shots above the crowd)? Was it dangerous?

Eli Saslow: Great question, thanks. Yeah, Jon pretty much risked his well being for some wonderful photos. Before the ba' started, he and I agreed on a sort of buddy system: We planned to stick together and watch out for each other, so neither of us got trampled. And I'll tell you, keeping an eye on Jon wasn't easy. He scaled walls, sat on top of fences and sprinted from place to place. I know his zoom lenses helped, but he was very often only a few feet from the scrum. It helped that the game was jammed in an alleyway for a while, and we could get above the action for a birds-eye view.


Portland, Ore.: Is there any talk of evening out the number Uppies and Doonies? Or do the numbers fluctuate over time and even out in the long run?

Eli Saslow: I don't think the Doonies are the type to look for charity. They'd rather play down 100 men than play with 10 men who aren't true, life-blood Doonies. I think, over history, the results of this game have tended to even out. The Doonies have likewise had runs where they win 10 or 15 games in a row. When you put their current losing streak into historical tendency, it's hardly a drop in the bucket. What's 15 or 20 games in a history of 800 or more? The Doonies are confident things will eventually turn back in their favor, and the numbers will somehow even themselves out.


Chicago: Thanks for the great story. You would think, if word about something like this got out, Kirkwall would have thousands of angry strong men traveling to play in the ba' every year, since it sounds like such great fun for the aggressive sort. Have they had problems with this? Is there anything that would stop me from showing up, as an outsider, and playing?

Eli Saslow: Great point, and Yes, the Orcadians are certainly worried about this. In fact, some lifelong ba' participants were not necessarily pleased to have the Washington Post in town, since they're worried about a ba' tourism developing. So far, this hasn't been a problem, but it could become one. If outsiders inject themselves into this game, the culture of the ba' will be largely destroyed. It's a small town game for a very specific breed. Outsiders would not be able to handle the violence; moreover, outsiders would not be able to let the violence and punching and biting be forgotten as soon as the game ends. In any other place, with any other people, the ba' would have ended with some post-game violence, with tempers continuing to flare. Outsiders could contribute to something like that. The Orcadians want to keep this an exclusive game.

Moreover, long-time players are already concerned that the game has grown to big. The scrum is now about 300 men, which is double what it once was. The bigger the game, the more dangerous it becomes to watch or paticipate. A larger scrum can cause more damage, both to players and to town property. Nobody wants to see the numbers continue to grow.


Anonymous: One of the funniest women-at-the-Ba' things I ever saw was an old lady at the edges of the scrum saying sweetly to her friend, "we're going to Sigurd's the'morrow for tea (the evening meal), do come", and then turn to the scrum and scream with all her might, "COME ON, DON'T LET THOSE BLOODY DOONIES GET IT!!!", and then turn back to her friend -- "so how is Olaf's cold?" in the most concerned and gentle tones. And yes, local tradition has it that the real reason the Women's Ba' was so short-lived was because it was too violent.

Eli Saslow: thanks for the great story. In my short experience, this is indeed indicative of what the ba' feels like. Everybody -- even gentle old ladies -- takes the game seriously.


RE: "wee drams":11 am GMT or Eastern?

Eli Saslow: Haha, how about both? The good folks of Kirkwall don't seem to care what time it is when it comes to drinking -- at least during the holiday season. Anything and everything is socially acceptable here. I turned down wee drams pretty consistently, from 9 a.m. local time to long after midnight. I'm afraid the local folk weren't too happy with my consumption, even if I did manage to enjoy my fair share.


Fairfax, Va.: This is one of the craziest things I've ever read about in The Post. Thanks for sharing it.

I'm amazed, though, that there's only been one death in this game. How is that possible?

Eli Saslow: Yes, I am also amazed that there has only been one death. This year, watching a dozen unconscious folks get pulled from the scrum, I half expected to see 10 deaths with my own eyes. It's an unbelievable testament to the medical response and to the game's code of sportsmanship that nobody has died during the ba' for over 100 years.

The Uppies and Doonies take sportsmanship seriously, in part because they know a few deaths could quite possibly end the great tradition of the ba'. When somebody falls down in the middle of the scrum, other players -- no matter their team -- reach down to pick him up. Yes, they will scratch and claw and punch each other, but there remains a general concern for every player well-being. Those who violate this principle are essentially shunned from future paticpation. Even this year, during the Christmas ba', I watched a boy kick another player in the ribs, maybe four or five times, on the roof of a building. It was a crazy beat-down, and I heard other players talking about it later. They said the perpetrator of that mess had gone too far, had kicked too many times, and he would forever be branded a nasty player because of it.


Edgemont, Pa.: Which was your favorite "Why We Compete" story? Any possibility of turning them into a book?

Eli Saslow: Wow, that's a really difficult question. A few of them are my favorites, but for different reasons. I really like the ba' and the American Samoa stories, because traveling to write them was such a memorable experience. The Barkley Marathon story will always be close to my heart, because I for some reason identify with the people who compete in it -- even though their running obsession exceeds mine by 1,000 percent. Right now, though, I don't think I could designate one story -- or eliminate any story -- as a possible favorite. I'm too close to them. It will take some time and distance to give me that kind of perspective.

I'm not sure about the book idea. Even though I feel like I've worked and toiled on these stories a lot, they only amount to about 25,000 words. That only gets me about one-third of the way to a short book. So, if nothing else, this series has helped me understand just how involved a book must be.


Which One?: Hi Eli,

Going to put you on the spot, here. Which of the articles you've written on "Why We Compete" have you enjoyed and/or found the most compelling? I think I enjoyed the first one on that crazy ultra-marathon. It is true that it is a fine line between pain and pleasure.

Eli Saslow: Haha, I'm not sure I can do much better than my previous answer. The Barkley is one of my favorites, for sure, and I think it always will be. Since it was the first story in the series, we really invested an incredible amount of time and energy over here. It was the prototype by which everything else was measured. That said, I don't want to concede that the first story was the best. I'm hoping I improved over the sequence of the eight pieces.


My wife's people are Scots...:...and this explains Thanksgiving dinner.

Eli Saslow: Do they fight and scramble like mad over the turkey?


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Who won the New Years Day ba? GO DOONIES!

Eli Saslow: It looks like the Uppies won again, and specifically a veteran player named Neil Stockan. For all future ba' updates -- assuming I'm not lucky enoguh to become the game's permanent beat writer -- check out It's a nice site, and the update it quickly after each game. You can find a nice set of pictures on the New Year's Day scrum there.


Bethesda, Md.: Is this Scottish game the origin of the Yale bladder ball phenomenon that undergraduates played in a mass fall spectacle of the 1950s through early 1980s?

Eli Saslow: I'm not sure, but a few other people have mentioned this to me. In fact, my uncle went to Yale, and he mentioned this game after he read my story. From what he described, it certainly sounds similar to the ba' -- if slightly more tame. How come the bladder ball tradition died? Any idea?


Anonymous: I've played in the Kirkwall ba' seven times, and this story really made me feel like I was back there in the scrum. This is a great game. A savage game, yes. But a great game. After it's over, everyone who plays goes back to the pub and drinks together. The animosity doesn't last for more than the duration of the game.

Long live the Doonies!

Eli Saslow: Thanks for sharing. Yes, I can attest to the fact that the animosity doesn't last more than 10 minutes. I walked back to Ian Gorn's flat with him after he won the the Christmas ba', and he was hugging just as many Doonies as Uppies.

I think its hilarious that the winner of the ba' becomes immediately responsible for hosting a three or four-day bash. They call that a reward? Ian has a small flat on the main street, two young sons and a pregnant wife. All of the sudden, they had to surrender their small space to 300 drunk, filthy men in the spirit of comraderie and tradition. Pretty classic. Gorn's wife, more than eight months pregnant, was a real trooper, though. She's a lifelong Uppie, and she said that she wouldn't call Gorn if she went into labor during the ba'. She understood which obligation was more important to her husband.


Anonymous: Sorry to be a naysayer, but this just seems like another pointless, testosterone-charged activity. I just don't get it. This is a game that should not be celebrated. It's pointless. How come nobody has stopped it?

Eli Saslow: Ahh, so you're one of those uppidy mainlanders, eh? I don't see what's the harm in this game. Nobody dies. The players willingly participate. It glues together a town with its past. I think it's a pretty wonderful thing, actually -- so long as I never have to participate.


Swarthmore, Pa: Just wanted to add that that one death in 1903 was a 45-year-old ship captain who sat down in the middle of the game for a rest and had a heart attack. So their are people who still argue that it doesn't really count and that the fatality rate remains at 0. I also want to add that Eli Saslow captured the game and the feel of Kirkwall brilliantly. It's a difficult thing to put into language, but he totally nailed it on the head. A great, great article!

Eli Saslow: Thanks so much. I didn't know that's how the death happened. I'm really thrilled that you liked the story.


Boston: Do you think the cavemen had competitions with sticks and rocks that simulated hunting? I wonder if they bet on it too...

Eli Saslow: Haha, good question, and a great one to end on. If I had to venture a guess, based on my reporting of this series, then I would say...Yes, absolutely. The cavemen had games and competitions and they probably bet on them, and they probably cared about winning and about pushing themselves and about teamwork. The themes reflected in these eight stories seem unbound by place or by culture. I see no reason why they should be bound by time, either.

Thanks again for reading the series. It's been a wonderful experience, heightened by such great feedback and contribution during these chats. Please contact me at any time.

Take care.


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