Pato: The Game That Doesn't Duck Around
The best stories, especially in genre fiction, are able to transport readers into a world that is familiar yet alien. Take the Harry Potter series for example. The idea of a school in the Scottish countryside that teaches children how to levitate feathers and turn mice into teacups sounds pretty hard to relate with. But the world that J.K. Rowling creates, one where wizards & witches went underground in an effort to be left alone by non-magic folks, doesn’t feel outlandish. Throw in all the layering of endless details that give that society even more depth and you have yourself a culture you can be immersed in. One of my favorite parts of this tapestry (unsurprisingly) is quidditch. Among the best tidbits about the magical version of soccer in the series is the story of how the golden snitch came to be.
The snitch, which when caught in a game of quidditch will give the seeker’s team 150 points and will instantly end the game, is a walnut-sized ball of gold with tiny wings. But when the game was young, magical people didn’t play with the ball familiar to Potter fans. Players would chase and catch an actual bird known named the Golden Snidget due to its nimbleness and speed. It is actually cannon that the sport almost drove the bird to extinction, which was why Harry played the modern game with the small golden orb that mimics the bird’s movements instead.
The idea of using a live bird in an organized team sport is one of the quirky and completely fantastic things that makes the magic of Harry Potter feel so unique. Perhaps the only thing that is more fanciful is the fact that the national sport of Argentina actually did this for hundreds of years. But when it comes to the sport of Pato, the Argentines aren’t ducking around.
I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but let’s just get through this next part in an orderly fashion.
The game of Pato or Juego del Pato, (duck game) has been around since at least the 15th century. The sport was created by ranchers in Argentina as a way to work on their skills as pat was played on horseback. Matches would be held between ranch hands of neighboring outfits who had one goal: get the duck into your own ranch by any means necessary.
Did I mention that there is a duck?
Things don't turn out well though in this ducktale. As mentioned earlier, the (live) duck was the item each team was attempting to bring home in order to win the game. Trapped in a two-handled basket, the duck’s head and feet would stick out of the basket, to essentially be used as two more handles. This needlessly cruel packaging led to a high mortality rate for the waterfowl. It wasn’t just the birds who had to fear for their safety during a game of pato.
Because of the great distances between ranches, when the game moved out of sight from civilization, it would get downright dangerous. Tramplings, shootings, and stabbings weren’t uncommon in the early days of the sport. In fact, the game has been banned numerous times due to its violence, both to the ducks and to the people playing. Catholic churches would refuse to bury the bodies of people killed playing pato in their cemeteries and would go as far as to excommunicate players from the church entirely in the late 18th century. The whole "God not being on your side" thing really put a dent into pato. By 1900, the sport was practically extinct.
The sport was revived, rather poetically, by a ranch owner in the 1930’s. Alberto del Castillo Posse changed the game to more closely resemble polo. Games are played between teams of four riders each and are timed. It is now played on a field instead of between homesteads. Mercifully, the pato in pato been left in the past as well. Riders now try to score baskets into vertical hoops added to each end of the field with a special ball that has had six handles sewn onto it. Riders weave around the field, passing the ball to each other on their way to the basket. If a foul is committed, a penalty shot is awarded. Yes, I just described horse quidditch and yes, it is as awesome as that sounds.
Pato is still a provincial game, mainly played by amateurs or semiprofessionals who tour with larger rodeo companies. The sport’s relative obscurity in more urban parts of the country has led some in Argentina to suggest that soccer should replace Pato as the national sport.
That’s a fair argument to make when footballers like Maradona and Messi are born under your flag, but unlike the world's game, Pato is uniquely and entirely Argentinian. The modern version of the game is captivating to watch, as expert riders battle for possession of the ball, sometimes dangling from their horses, inches away from pounding hooves to retrieve a loose ball from the ground. In some places, Pato has adopted the opulence of polo, but for the most part, it hasn’t forgone its roots as a game of laborers. It’s a sport that has ditched its brutal past and has distilled its murky origin into something that portrays the best values of those who play it.
When a player possesses the ball in pato, they must hold their arm outstretched because opposing players have to be given a chance to steal the ball. The idea “Come and take it, if you dare.” is written into the very rules of the game. If that swagger, that confidence to take on a challenge doesn’t sum up Argentina, then I’m not sure what does.