(This article was subsequently published in LocalsGuide.)
In sports, every game represents a battle. But only one sport is a battle. Only one sport has as its end-goal the death of one of its participants. That sport is bullfighting. And it’s more popular than it’s ever been.
The first time I ever saw a bullfight was on the television. I was sitting in a bar on the Plaza Nueva in Granada, Spain. Just a workaday bar full of construction workers and waiters from other cafes, Spanish men moving aimlessly around the ugly bar drinking anis and cognac. I sat at the end of the bar eating olives and pistachios and drinking Aguila listening to the bells from San Miguel Bajo, trying to shake the heat, the yellow light shining in from outside like parchment withering in fire.
On the old television bolted to an arm above the bathroom door on the other side of the bar a bullfight broadcast out of Málaga was playing. The ideal of bullfighting is, above all, composure and grace, especially regarding the blood (as little as possible) and the killing (as clean as possible). It became evident quickly however, that this bullfight had gone wrong. The bullfighter had been bloodied. He and the picadores were in full flight like pigeons. They had wounded the bull in the worst possible way, enraging him without weaking him, leaving the bull strong, angry and slick with black blood and the matador, unseated, unmanned, gave up all thoughts of killing.
Gradually, the disappointment and empathy of the men in the bar turned to anger and then disgust, a real viable, Hedda Gabbler-type moral nausea. They screamed for the bartender to turn it, turn it, turn it! And he did, to a rerun of “Miami Vice.” All the men turned back to their drinks and tried to shake the evil of it out of their heads.
In the sport of bullfighting there is the same drama, hero worship, star power and the rest that you get in any more familiar sport. But you also get history. Baseball was created in the mid-19th century? Bullfighting was created in the mid 10th century – BC. Football is played in $50 million dollar stadiums? Bullfights are staged in 2000 year old amphitheatres. And bullfighting, which has always been an international sport, spreading from Spain and Portugal to Mexico and Brazil, has further spread to the US, where especially in California’s Central Valley, the sons of Iberia stage bloodless bullfights in between ranch and farm chores.
Death is in the air all over the world these days. This is one of the few living customs designed specifically as a moving memento mori.