Unusual Sports: The medeival art of Fierljeppen

Have you ever heard of Fierljeppen? It’s a Dutch sport that’s fairly old, dating back to the 1200s. What’s interesting about this sport is that it was created as a way of making life easier and not for sport. The idea was that the farmers needed to get over multiple canals that criss-crossed over the Netherlands. Fieljeppen was a way for them to do so efficiently. It’s when you take a pole, and you use it to hoist and launch your body across. The goal of Fierljeppen is to get as far as possible from the starting point while crossing the canal. This sport is also pretty similar to pole vaulting, though the major difference between these two sports is that pole vaulting is about how high you can get. Fierljeppen, though, is about the distance you can launch your body. You also can’t run with the pole.  

What’s the proper technique? The “Fierljeppers” sprint at top speed for about 15-20 meters, heading straight towards the canal. Once they finally reach it, they grab a hold of a large pole, called a polsstok, and push it into the bottom of the canal. Here, they rely on gravity and its force as well as their own instinctual balance. The Fierljepper quickly climbs the pole to get more height, all while attempting to control the pole while in midair, as it is swinging to the opposite side. If they are successful, they will land gracefully on the other side of the canal on a soft bed of sand. If they are unsuccessful, they risk falling from a great height. However, not everyone makes it forward. While the goal of Fierljeppen is to go forwards as far as you can, some competitors fall backwards, and others fall sideways into the canal. This is common even at the highest levels because Fierljeppers will try to pass the dead centre (pole sticking straight up) as slowly as possible to maximize their climbing time. 

Another important aspect of this sport is the pole that they use. The pole that the competitor grabs onto is strategically positioned prior to the jump. A pole that is closer to the finishing end will get a competitor further and give them more time to climb, but it requires more momentum to make it all the way across. If the pole is placed closer to the starting position it requires less momentum, but gives the competitor less time to climb, resulting in a shorter distance achieved. This means that the strategy has to be tailored to the specific individual — are they good at gaining momentum or better/faster at climbing? That’s something the athlete would need to experiment with to find their own strengths and weaknesses. Another important feature of the pole is its length. The size of the pole ranges from eight to 13 meters long; the more length that you have on the pole, the more height you can get, which means more distance, making you more likely to win. It should be noted that you can’t just use any pole. These polsstoks have a round, flat base. This is necessary in order to prevent it from sinking into the muddy bottom of the canal. In the past, the poles were made of wood, but, then, they progressed to aluminum, a more sturdy and reliable material. Today, Fierjleppers use a high-tech, light-weight carbon fibre for their poles, which not only combines the stability aspect of the aluminum by having this material lighter, it helps the athletes to achieve even greater distances.  

Like I mentioned earlier, this way of life arose around the 1200s. As time went on, the Dutch started to get a competitive edge with this activity, and they hosted the first Fierljeppen competition in 1767. However, as more roads and bridges were being built, the need for Fierljeppen as a transport declined. Because of this, it was turned into an official sport with the first competition held in 1975. People continue to compete and aspire to reach new records in Fierjleppen today! Today’s world record for Fierljeppen is Jaco de Groot, who was able to go 22.1 meters. There are four different categories you can compete in: Seniors (men), Ladies, Juniors, Veterans. Jaco competed in the Senior male group and achieved this record back in 2017, and no one seems to have beat him yet. For the ladies, Marriott V /d Wal, holds the record for 18.19 meters, which she set back in 2019. Today there are over 600 places in the Netherlands that you can compete in for Fierljeppen. Do you think you can beat the world record? Only one way to find out …