If you’re passing through Friesland (or a couple of other regions in the Netherlands) this summer and see someone flying through the air on a pole, don’t worry: you’re just seeing Fierljeppen.
Following up from our recent piece on the Frisian sport of Kaatsen– handball – we felt it was only right to turn our attention to another distinctly Frisian activity, namely the sport that sees hundreds of people floating gracefully through the air on top of a pole: Fierljeppen.
The game can be quite well summarised by breaking down its name: in West Frisian, “fier”means “far”, and “ljeppen” means “leaping”. In essence, it is a bit like the Pole Vault, but instead of jumping over a bar and on to a large crash mat, you jump over waterways in Friesland.
The only two items you need to get in on someFierljeppenfun are a body of water and a pole. The polsstock is normally between 8 and 13 metres long and has a large “foot” at the bottom to prevent you from accidentally sinking into the mud at the bottom of whatever you are jumping over.
Unlike in the Pole Vault, you don’t run with the pole yourself. Instead, you sprint at full speed towards the pole, leaping and grabbing on to it and hoping that your flailing body and the laws of gravity will see you to a (semi) soft landing on the other side.
Well, aside from embodying the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”, Fierljeppen actually came about due to necessity. Since much of Friesland is below sea level and water-transporting channels or navigable waterways criss-cross its terrain, the sport was originally a way for farmers to get around on their land: you could simply ljep from one field to another. In the East Frisia region in Germany, the sport evolved from similar origins and is now called Pultstockspringen.
Eventually, the hopping became a sport. On the 24th of August 1767, the first recognised Fierljeppen competition was held in Baard in Friesland. The Leeuwarder Courant even covered the event. Up until 1956, competitions were held on a casual basis, but from 1975 onward, it became a formalised sporting event when the first rules on pole length were written down. In 2006, 50 years to the day from the first organised competition, the first carbon-fibre polsstock was used.
Nowadays, there’s a national championship, a league system and a full season of events each summer. The sport even has its own ruling body – the Polsstokbond Holland – which organises competitions across the Netherlands. You can see the calendar of competitions on the Nederlandse Fierljepbond’s website.
So the record-holder must be Frisian, right?
Not quite, no. Even though Fierljeppen was officially recognised as a part of Frisian cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2018, the popularity of Fierljeppen has spread beyond Friesland and is particularly common in the region around the city of Utrecht. In 2017, the Fierljeppenrecord was smashed by Jaco de Groot from just outside Utrecht, with a 22.21 metre leap. But the record-holder for the Juniors, Boys and Ladies classes are all still Frisian: the longest-ljeppenwoman in the Netherlandds is Marrit van der Wal from It Heidenskip in Friesland.
Photo source: Peter van der Sluijs / Wikipedia