As the 2012 Olympic Games begin, it’s a grand time to visit the ball courts at Mexican archeological sites and see evidence of what was one of the earliest the team sports. The Mesoamerican ball game was being played in 1000 B.C., some say as far back as 1400 B.C. That’s well before the games started in Olympia in 776 B.C.
It’s not unusual for cultures to have religious games. The Greek Olympic games were held every four years to honor Zeus -- accompanied by a truce honored for the duration of the games by all city-states. What probably started as a sprinting competition on the stadia in Olympia expanded to the pentathlon--jumping, discus, javelin, wrestling and a foot-race. Winners were admired, immortalized in poems and statues.
In Mesoamerica's ball game there is evidence one of the players was sacrificed at the end of some games -- proof of the religious nature of the game. Early Spanish conquerors prohibited playing the game; anything related to indigenous religion was, in their eyes, the cult of the devil.
Nonetheless, several teams were taken to Spain to show the king’s court this remarkable sport. Players played very few exhibition matches before suffering a similar fate of almost all indigenous people taken to Europe at that time. They succumbed to smallpox, measles, or other European diseases for which they had no immunity.
Those few games played had a tremendous impact on European sports. Until then individualized sports reigned: only one person could win. Everyone else lost. In traditional Olympic events the gold medalist is the winner. Other competitors, though excellent athletes, are still losers. It was the Mesoamerican ballgame that introduced the idea to Europe that all members of a team can be winners.
Though no longer played and the rules of the Mesoamerican game long since forgotten, portrayals in ceramic art and sculpture consistently depict a solid rubber ball and seven players on a team. Players were allowed to hit the ball with all parts of their bodies except hands and feet. They wore protective leather padding over their head, shoulders, elbows, knees, around their waist and over their stomach. The ball weighed 3.5 to 4 kilos (7 to 9 pounds).
There is no standard sized court; what is standard is the shape. Two parallel mounds give the ballcourt its characteristic capital letter "I" shape -- wide at the ends, narrow down the center. Sloping sides lead to a seating area on the top of the parallel mounds. With time it became fashionable to have steeper sides culminating with the grandest of all courts at Chichen Itza -- almost a hundred meters long with vertical sidewalls.
Rings are positioned vertically in the middle of each sidewall where the sloping side meets the vertical wall. The most important points were scored by getting the ball through the ring. This was a very rare event because rings are barely larger than the ball and were positioned far from players who couldn’t use hands or feet.
A less important point was scored by hitting the ball against the ring and having it bounce off. It is believed points could also be scored by having the ball bounce on a marker or by hitting the ball against the corners at each end of the sidewalls. Points may have been scored for dominating the ball. There were many ways of scoring points, all of which were of different value. No two games were identical.
The ball game may have had a similar function to Greek oracles. Wise priests, perhaps even nobles, understood the nature, and order, of the points to be part of a conversation between two gods who were influencing the scoring of the points and thereby allowing the priests to eavesdrop on the divine dialog. Priests could gain insight into the needs and concerns of the gods and use that insight to guide their offerings.
Hang around the ball court in Chichen Itza and you'll hear a group being told that the captain of the losing team was sacrificed for playing poorly. The next group may be told the captain of the winning team was sacrificed for playing so well and that he went on to become a god and accompany the sun on its daily journey through the sky. I side with those who say that the sacrificed player had volunteered before the game even began.
Just as in a conversation there is no winner or loser, in the eyes of the priests and nobles there probably was no winning or losing team. The winners and losers were the spectators. Those who watched, without understanding the religious subtleties, placed bets on each point. Spaniards report it wasn't only trinkets that were bet. People bet harvests, home, and even themselves and their families into slavery. Huge sums were transferred at the ball games. The bets were paid as the points were scored.
Those of us who enjoy team sports, either as players or spectators, might say a quiet thanks to those ancient Mesoamericans; is there really much difference between what happens at today’s sportsbooks and at the ancient ballcourts?