Ready, steady, splash! Malta celebrates historic greasy pole tournament

Valletta (Reuters) - A former seaside hamlet which is now one of Malta’s most modern towns is struggling to keep ancient traditions alive, though not for want of trying.

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St Julian’s, just north of Valletta harbour, is dotted with tower cranes as old houses make way for new high-rise apartment blocks each vying for a view over a bay dotted with restaurants and colourful boats.

The town’s population has swelled with droves of North Europeans who work in the booming e-gaming industry. Malta has become a hub for European online gaming, which includes online sports betting, web-based casinos, poker and other games.

For the last 200 years the bay has taken centre stage at the end of August when the town holds a feast for its patron saint, St Julian the Hospitaller, and a greasy pole competition is held off the promenade.

In the tournament, known as Gostra to the Maltese, a 16 metre-pole is covered by 15 litres of lard and fixed at an angle from the promenade into the sea. Competitors try to grab three flags at its end – a blue and white one dedicated to St Mary, a yellow and white one for the Vatican, and the Belgian tricolor, since St Julian is believed to have been born in the Belgian town of Ath in 7AD.

To the amazement of tourists, Belgian flags also dominate the whole town for the four-day festival of which the Gostra is the main attraction.

Only those who help in the organisation of the festival can take part in the greasy pole challenge. Organisers say participation has declined while costs, especially for insurance, have soared.

“This is like a football team, you have to be part of the team to take part,” Neville Zahra one of the long-term organisers said. “For me, it is part of my life.”

Participants run up the pole from as far as possible before the lard and gravity take their toll. As they lose momentum and traction they either dive into the sea or bravely stretch as far as they can go for the flags. The watching crowd delights at the awkward angles at which they invariably fall into the Mediterranean. A few suffer minor injuries.

Zahra, 37, has taken part in the Gostra ever since he was a child, and has gone home with several trophies and a few bruises.

“The trick is to concentrate and not to be scared of it,” he said. “You can get hurt, as in any sport, but you must not let that get to you.”

Reporting by Chris Scicluna, editing by Gavin Jones and Jane Merriman