At over 1500 sites in Mexico, there are large Aztec temples that share something in common. The bloody steps at the base of these tributes to the gods are home to small I-shaped pitches surrounded by skulls. These pitches are remnants of an ancient sport involving two teams, a rubber ball and human sacrifice.
When the Aztecs started a new settlement, they would usually build two things straight away, a shrine to the God Huitzilopochtli, the deity of war, the Sun and human sacrifice; and then a ball court in the shape of a capital “I” would be built next to it so that the game of ullamaliztli could commence, an ancient sport dating back to 1600BC. The game was played in the shadow of the shrine of a blood-lusting God and would eventually evolve into the ball sports that we still follow today.
Ullamalitztli was a game played by high ranking members of royalty and commoner alike, the game could be played with two teams ranging between two and seven players per side. The exact rules of the game remain clouded to historians, but one aspect is a certainty; players were only able to play the nine-pound rubber ball with their hips, forearms and knees. The players would try to smack the ridiculously heavy ball through a hoop. Between ‘goals’ players could be horribly injured with a little spilled blood a bonus.
In fact, this was a game of life and death. The winning team would be given deer headdresses as prizes and the losing team would be decapitated immediately after the match, a necessary blood sacrifice to appease huitzilopochtli and keep the “infinite night” at bay, assuring that the sun would rise the next day.
It’s clear that the Aztecs held this sport in a very high regard, to have the courts for a game centralised in areas specifically for high ranking individuals and the gods themselves highlights a potent relationship between religious power and sport.
The courts that have been discovered so far are very elongated, to benefit huge viewing platforms along the perimeter. Sites in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras register lengths between 49ft-111ft. The game was also used to opiate the masses, with prisoners of war weakened and then played against a well drilled home team. Captives and prisoners of war would usually lose the game and their heads, demonstrating the power of the religious hierarchy atop their warring temple and entertaining the common citizens and slaves.
The sport of ullamaliztli still exists today, albeit the losing side just goes home defeated, there’s no need for the winners to slice out a heart and give it to a deity anymore. It’s now abbreviated as Ullama and played prominently in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, thanks to a lack of influence from the Spanish Inquisition that removed Aztec tradition from most of Mesoamerica.
If you even go to South America and you’re approached by 3-13 individuals playing keepy-uppy with a rubber ball using only their hips – RUN!