Sacrificial Aztec Ball Game Revived in Mexico

A tournament in Mexico is reviving the 3000-year old Mesoamerican sport of ōllamaliztli. According to the Mexico City News, the tournament is being held in the ancient city of Teotihuacán and began on April 14th. Several teams from Mexico along with teams from Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica will compete for not only glory but also to revive part of their ancient cultural heritage.

Athletes entered matches in traditional clothing.

Athletes entered matches in traditional clothing.

The sport involves two teams attempting to move a massive, heavy rubber ball up and down a court without using the hands or the feet. It is believed that players moved the ball using their hips, although archaeological records of the actual rules are scarce and some theories have it that paddles or bats were used. According to tournament organizer Armando Osorio, the tournament is a way for Mexicans (and presumably all other nationalities of spectators and athletes) to reconnect with their history through sport:

What I want is for us Mexicans to realize that we have much richness (in our culture), as much as in arts, crafts, and sports, and we ought to be proud because we are the first country in the world to have a ballgame.

Ballcourts, balls, and art featuring variations the sport have been found throughout Central and South America, with the oldest known court dating back to 1400 BCE. Historians suspect that the sport could have served as a proxy for warfare to solve territorial disputes based on the warrior garb seen on athletes in Mesoamerican art. 

An athlete being decapitated.

An athlete being decapitated.

However, the most notorious aspects of the game by far is the human sacrifice associated with it. Artwork depicting the game is often accompanied by images of decapitated athletes or captives, and some historians believe the game might have been sometimes played with human skulls instead of balls.

I knew I shouldn't have skipped practice to make out behind the school.

“I knew I shouldn’t have skipped practice to make out behind the school.”

There are some records that indicate losing teams were sometimes sacrificed, and ōllamaliztli courts have been found directly next to steps leading to sacrificial altars. This modern incarnation, luckily, spares that aspect of the sport.

Just for funsies, not for keepsies.

Just for funsies, not for keepsies.

You know you were hoping for it. Admit it. As grisly as this ancient sport sounds, is it any worse than some of today’s violent sports? Boxers and quarterbacks might not have their heads removed, but they certainly can voluntarily suffer a great deal of head trauma and brain damage as a given part of their sports. Some things never change – too much.