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It's amazing how crazy people get about sports these days, especially considering how much sports suck compared to what they used to be. No, we're not talking about the 1940s when football players wore leather helmets. We're talking about the ancient sports where Viking rape was a trophy and "crocodile death" had its own slot on the scoreboard.

Long before soccer (and smallpox) took pre-Columbian America by storm, the official sport of Ancient Mexico was an odd game that the Mayans called pitz. Since there is no word in the English language that can do justice to its brutality, we simply call it "The Mesoamerican Ballgame".



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The sport known simply as the Ball Game was popular across Mesoamerica and played by all the major civilizations from the Olmecs to the Aztecs.

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The impressive stone courts became a staple feature of a city’s sacred complex and there were often several playing courts in a single city. More than just a game, though, the event could have a religious significance and featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. The contests even supplied candidates for human sacrifice, for the sport could, quite literally, be a game of life or death.Mesoamerican Ballgame was a lot like volleyball, except the ball involved was nine pounds of solid rubber. And there were beheadings.

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Players had to keep the heavy bastard in play by bouncing it off their forearms, hips, elbows and (if you're a sissy) bats and rackets. Points were scored by striking the ball against the opponents' wall, while points were lost if the ball hit the ground more than twice.



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The Mesoamericans included one final draw to wow their crowd. Either team could score an instant win by knocking the ball through an impossibly-high sideways-basketball-hoop (sort of like Quidditch with badass Mexicans). In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú. The pair annoyed the gods of the underworld with their noisy playing and the two brothers were tricked into descending into Xibalba (the underworld) where they were challenged to a ball game. Losing the game, Hun Hunahpús had his head cut off; a foretaste of what would become common practice for players unfortunate enough to lose a game.

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A ball court in Oaxaca

The exact rules of the game are not known for certain and in all probability there were variations across the various cultures and different periods. However, the main aim was to get a solid rubber (latex) ball through one of the rings. This was more difficult than it seems as players could not use their hands. One can imagine that good players became highly skilled at directing the ball using their padded elbows, knees, thighs and shoulders. Teams were composed of two or three players and were male-only. There was also an alternative version, less-widespread, where players used sticks to hit the ball.

Players could be professionals or amateurs and there is evidence of betting on the outcome of important games. The game also had a strong association with warriors and war captives were often forced to play the game.

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Early Preclassic playing courts were simple, flattened-earth rectangles but by the Late Formative Period (300 BCE onwards) these evolved into more imposing areas which consisted of a flat rectangular surface set between two parallel stone walls. Each side could have a large vertical stone ring set high into the wall.



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The post-game traditions were truly insane; Winners would be whisked off to celebrate with some shapely Mesoamerican ladies with a penchant for body-painting, while the losing team got lead into the back and had their heads chopped off. However, there remains some discrepancy as to who actually got sacrificed: the opposing captain, the opposing players or even the winning team (since they were clearly the greater warriors). Either way, there would be blood.

Such scenes are depicted in the decorative sculpture on the courts themselves, perhaps most famously on the South ball court at El Tajín and at Chichén Itzá, where one relief panel shows two teams of seven players with one player having been decapitated. Another ominous indicator of the macabre turn that this sporting event could take is the presence of tzompantli (the skull racks where severed heads from sacrifices were displayed) rendered in stone carvings near the ball courts.



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Carving of a human sacrifice after a ball game in Veracruz, Mexico

A form of the mesoamerican ball game is still played today, known as ulama.Ulama de cadera (hip ulama) is similar to the Aztec version of the Mesoamerican game, and also related are its cousins ulama de antebrazoand ulama de palo.Many of the players are children, and ulama de antebrazo is often played by women. The Mexican state of Sinaloa is most known for the modern version of the Aztec ball game.

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