Throwing trees, tossing stones and heaving rocks: It’s a Caber of love
By Marcus Fitzsimmons (email@example.com)
Big guys throwing big things.
There’s no other way to describe Scottish athletics, and as surely as the sound of the bagpipes is the symbol for Scottish music, the caber is the standard of Highland Heavy Athletics.
While many Scottish athletic contests have at least a trace resemblance to more modern track events, the Caber Toss is just as uniquely Scottish as the tartan kilts the athletes all wear or haggis, which at least some of the athletes will admit trying.
“Definitely the most popular event that we have is the caber,” said Great Smoky Mountain Highland games athletics director Dave Summers. “Who doesn’t want to see someone pick up a 150-pound piece of wood and try to flip it?”
And just where do you find athletes who consider an afternoon of tree tossing — telephone pole throwing, if you prefer — a great way to spend a May weekend?
“We have quite a few here in east Tennessee,” Summers, who is an athlete himself, said. “We have a bunch in Chattanooga and group over in Cocke County and in Johnson City. We have six or seven here in the Knoxville area.”
But even among the athletes, the tree of knowledge falls a little short when it comes to remembering exactly how and why the Scots developed the contest, which to be fair does go back quite a way in the traditional fabric of the country.
“I wouldn’t call it legend, but there’s three things the Caber Toss may have originated from,” says Summers. “One is that it was simply a competition of strength that started out with trees cut for firewood. One I’ve been told is that it was way to practice throwing the pole just the right way against a castle wall so if you were attacking, your side could climb up it if it flipped and stuck straight up. Another one is that they carried with them on trips and flipped them to use and walk across the top to cross streams or bogs or ravines, because there weren’t any roads.
“To actually pinpoint it down where it really came from, we’re not sure.”
And while Summers confirms that the Caber Toss is the crowd favorite in any games, he’s also quick to describe the judging and purpose of the competition, something often confusing to the kilt-clad and first timers alike.
“The way our judges judge it in modern times is you have two judges, one in the back and one on the side,” Summers explains. “The one in the back is judging the clock face 11:30 to 2 o’clock. When the caber goes completely over, or flips, you want a perfect 12 o’clock from where you throw. If it doesn’t go all the way over, you’re side judge is there goes on a degree basis.”
Of course the Caber isn’t the only event for the athletes; the sheaf too is almost as popular among the crowds, even if it’s not an event popular in Scotland.
“The sheaf toss is where you use a pitchfork and have a burlap bag of hay or straw or sometimes rope to get it up to 20 pounds and the athlete stabs it with the pitchfork and they see how high they can throw it between two standards, kind of like goal posts, and it goes from 18 feet all the way up to 40 feet,” Summers said. “It’s more an American event; they rarely do it in Scotland. It was introduced to the states at the Grandfather Mountain games.”
The athletes at Maryville College this weekend will range from five professionals down to the B division as well as the Masters Division for the 40-and-over competitors and the women’s division.
“We won’t have any novice or C competitions, which are for new athletes,” Summers said. “The big division will be nine guys, but we’ll have regular As and Bs throwing on Saturday. On Sunday I’ll have Masters and the women’s divisions. For them it’s just a lighter weight, but the same events.”
But the games’ pros are just that.
Myles Wetzel (Tuscaloosa, Ala.), Kerry Overfelt (Gordneck, Ky.), Craig Smith (Dayton, Ohio), Chris Chafin (Curry, N.C.) and Kearney Smith (Trussville, Ala.) bring a whole new meaning to Clan Heavy Lifting. Kearney Smith holds a world record and Overfelt is the 2009 National Champion while Craig Smith and Chafin are both law enforcement officers that may or may not need anything but their arms to pull someone over.
“With this sport a lot of these guys and the women too, come from track and field backgrounds. There’s a lot of similarities and people find out there’s something they can do after college or they come to a game and see it and get interested. Sometimes they stick with it sometimes they don’t,” Summers said. “YouTube is really big now for getting people interested. I saw it on ESPN about 3 a.m. one morning when I was a kid. I knew I was of Scottish decent and I went and saw an exhibition on World’s Fair Park in 2006 and the next thing I know I’m deeply involved in it.”