Tomato tussle takes some tossing

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NO SPORTING EVENT can be too challenging for a Sportshound to cover. Or be covered! Being in the thick of the action is just part of the job. Melbourne-based Hound COLIN DALE discovered all of this and more, venturing to Spain this week for the “sport” of tomato throwing at La Tomatina – the world’s biggest food fight:

IT SEEMED LIKE a good idea at the time. There I was, in the middle of the narrow, ancient street of a Spanish town when a dump truck dropped its massive load of over-ripe tomatoes at my feet. There was only one thing to do: dive in!

Suddenly my world turned RED.

Lying on a bed of a tonne of tomatoes, I considered I had the ammunition on my side. This fight was surely mine for the taking. I was the gladiator in the middle of the ring and I was out to win. But no. All hell broke loose and I found myself a sitting duck.

Colin Dale up to his neck in the tomato war
Colin Dale up to his neck in the tomato war

I had suddenly become the number one target of a massive, wild mob of fiesta fanatics flinging the Romas in my direction. Splat, bang, thud and ouch! In seconds, I was covered from head to toe. I had to fight back. A full-on counter-attack. Feverishly grabbing tommies from my left, from my right – as I lay flat on my back in a squishy pond of tomato juice – I hurled masses of them back at my attackers. But I was outnumbered by a thousand to one, at least. Red paste ran down my face, into my eyes and ears. Ouch, splat and now even more OUCH!

Caught in the crossfire fury of a sporting battle that could only happen in Spain, I knew my gladiator days were numbered. I was certainly in a pickle. Saturated, marinated, I was tomatoes on toast for my tormentors. It was time for a “graceful” retreat from all this “fun”! I bolted … or tried to. Forcing my way through the scrum, trying to run like hell while still being belted from all directions, I eventually made it to refuge in a tiny laneway off “tomato street”. I was bright red, battling for breath, battered and bruised, but I had weathered The Terrifying Test of the Tomato.

Puree combat
Puree combat

The world is full of crazy events. The Poms have made an artform of stupid things like cheese rolling championships, but La Tomatina certainly takes the prize in my humble opinion. Held on the last Wednesday of August in the very nondescript, small industrial town of Bunol, 40 km inland from Valencia, it has very quickly become the international destination for extremely messy daftness. Over 25,000 barmy travellers join with thousands of locals to cram into an incredibly tiny and narrow street for just one hour of total mayhem.

For most, it begins with an early tour bus ride from Valencia and being dropped off in a dusty out-of-town industrial park. But there’s an air of excitement and expectancy among the thousands of mostly international visitors who head off on a 30-minute walk into the middle this this small Spanish town, set in a sharp valley. Pop-up bars, food stalls and sellers of sunglasses and goggles line the route. It’s like a dress-up day at a northern England Test match with every costume imaginable, all soon to be destroyed in an avalanche of tomato puree. A litre jug of sangria or an ice cold cerveza (beer) seems essential as we show our entry wristbands to security upon reaching Bunol’s main thoroughfare, soon to become Tomato Street.

We push our way up to the middle of the fight zone. It’s 8.30am and there are still two hours to kickoff, but already half of Spain seems packed in. I can’t believe how small this world-famous battleground is. A one-way street, that a compact car would struggle to negotiate, must accommodate five full-sized dump trucks, each laden with 25,000 tonnes of tomatoes, which squeeze through the crowd over a trip of just 700 metres. It’s health and safety gone mad. Again, only in Spain. We squeeze past the ham pole in the middle. It’s a bit like a goal-post covered with animal fat to make it slippery. On top sits a tasty Iberian ham for the taking. Human pyramids form in vain bids to try to snatch the ham. Why? Well, why not, this makes as much sense as a colossal tomato fight.

Girls get willing with the Romas
Girls get willing with the Romas

No-one actually knows the reason behind the original tomato fight, which broke out during the town’s fiesta in 1944. There are a number of theories, but it was clearly enjoyed by the locals as they returned enthusiastically to the following year’s fiesta, fully armed with over-ripe Roma-type tomatoes from the region. Authorities tried to stamp out the stampede but it was there to stay and they eventually gave in, with the tomato fight officially becoming part of Bunol’s fiesta in 1959.

The Internet age put what was a wonderfully whacky local event on to the world stage. Suddenly in the noughties Bunol found itself with a juggernaut on its hands. Finally, after around 60,000 revellers descended upon the town in 2012, causing absolute bedlam and with only half making it into the action in Tomato Street, the council introduced a ticket entry system, thereby controlling numbers over the past five years.

This week the massive crowd jammed around us, cheering wildly as the first dump truck appeared just before 11am at the end of Tomato Street. Twenty privileged locals, each roped into the truck for safety, sat upon the massive pile of ripe reds and began hurling the harvest down upon the screaming masses. A team of forerunners somehow pushed the crowd to the side and the truck wedged its way through, occasionally stopping to drop a load of fruit. This is where my nightmare began.

Water cannons go off and soon turn the harvest turns into puree. Truck after truck inches its way down the street. It’s total pandemonium in the middle of the combat zone. A full-on free-for-all. It’s a tomato-led war of anarchy and everyone is an assailant and a target. Wow, it is just like all those photos and videos we’ve seen that really seemed too good and too riotous to be true.

Happy tomato warriors
Happy tomato warriors

After a brief respite, I decide to head back into the mushrooming mosh-pit, determined to wreak havoc and revenge. But another 20 or so minutes of hurling and being splattered with toms has me spent and it’s time to retreat for good. A few minutes later, just under an hour after the first truck appeared on the scene, a town siren goes off for full-time. It’s over for another year.

A dip in the town’s small stream rids us of just some of the red mess that adorns everyone who has ventured into Tomato Street. Time for more cerveza before the long walk back up the hill to the coach park where all our drenched clothes are thrown off and we can slip into something clean and dry.

Washing off the puree
Washing off the puree

The atmosphere is one of great celebration. But who won? Who cares? Just being in the middle of that outrageous, senseless, wild and bizarre event makes everyone a winner!

COLIN DALE will return to the fray next week reporting from the Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest beerfest in Munich. Is there no hardship he is not prepared to endure for Sportshounds readers?

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Author: Colin Dale

Melbourne-born sports nut, Colin “Bomber” Dale began his career in journalism with The Herald as copy boy in 1980. Stints with the Sunday Press and The Sun followed along with a year with NTV Channel 8 in Darwin. Chasing his dream to work in Fleet Street and follow all sports and drink beer around the world, Bomber landed on his feet in the UK, founding a tour company specialising in festivals such as the Oktoberfest in Munich, Rugby Internationals and Royal Ascot. Prost!

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