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The Oldest Sport in America

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“What is happening on the surface of the Earth? They are just stomping about and shouting. May they be summoned here therefore. They shall come to play ball, and we shall defeat them. They have simply failed to honor us. They have neither honor nor respect. Certainly they act arrogantly here over our heads,” said therefore all those of Xibalba.

-Popl Vuh

A maya ball player during an exhibition match in Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Silverio Méndez plays the Mayan Ball Game or Pitzas it was known in Classical Maya. His group set up tilted wooden panels with a hoop to serve as wall in the municipal salon of Comalapa. This is where they will perform a match of the ancient ball game before a group of curious onlookers. They dress up as ancient Maya with make up reminiscent of the lords of the underworld, Xibalbá.

The game starts as two players perform a small ritual with their handmade rubber balls, which usually weigh 8 kilograms and are quite springy. Once the ritual is over, Mr. Méndez and the rest of his crew take to the dimly lit court dressed in full Mayan regalia. The idea of the attire based on Mayan nobility is quite simple: back in the day, only people of a certain social stature were allowed to play the ball game. 

Maya Ball Players during an exibition match in Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The game begins. Only two players participate in every match, standing on opposite sides of the court which is divided by a line made with petals that starts from the hoop on the sloped wall besides them. The players hit the ball from side to side while attempting to score a Cha’aj, which means “line” of “five” according to Mr. Méndez. Once one of the players has managed to score, the game is over.

“I started in the year 2000, when I was 8 years old,” recalls Mr. Méndez. “I used to see my elders practicing, so it caught my attention. During those practices, it was all about spirituality and the movements of the sun. I started from there.” As his interest in the sport increased, Mr. Méndez and his friends began to ask their grandparents, uncles, and anyone who was old enough to teach them how to play the game.

Ancient Pitz ballcourt in Yaxhá, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Now, Mr. Méndez and his childhood friends play the game from town to town, carrying their mobile court with them. They usually set up their display in small venues for exhibition matches. “In our communities some people say that we are crazy for doing this type of game,” comments Mr. Méndez.

The version of the game that the group plays is just one of its many variants. There were many ways in which the game was played in the past; its rules usually varied from town to town. The most well-known version of the game nowadays is called Ulama. This contemporary variant is played in three different styles: the hip Ulama, in which teams of five or more players hit the ball mainly with the hip. Then there’s the forearm Ulama, which is played in a smaller field with a lighter ball that the players hit with their forearms. Lastly, there’s the paddle Ulama, where players use a paddle to hit the ball from one side of the court to the other.

A ball player with the rubber ball during a match in Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The origins of the game can be traced back to a ball court of Olmec origin in around 1400 B.C., in Paso de la Amada, México. Ball courts of different sizes and shapes have been found all over Mesoamerica. In the ancient Maya city of Tikal, seven courts have been discovered so far.

Its prevalence in the Mayan world is easily understandable, as the Popol Vuh speaks about the ball game as a central aspect of the origins of the world as we know it. And it was precisely that religious aspect of the game which lead the Spanish Conquistadores to eventually forbid the game as a whole. However, bits and pieces of this tradition survived the test of time through people who keep the ball bouncing.

Maya ballgame court in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The rubber ball exits the court during an exhibition match in Comalapa, Chimaltenango. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A ball player with the rubber ball during a match in Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Temple I in Tikal, a Maya Ballgame court on the south side of the temple. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

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