Archaeologists have identified more than 1,500 ball courts to date. These prehistoric buildings were specifically created for the practice of the Mesoamerican ball game show, a game which is a thousand-year old form of sport. It was more than just a game, however, it also played a ritual, political and economic role among Mesoamerican populations.
The Olmecs were the first Native American peoples to play ball games. They used the hule (rubber) harvested from trees to manufacture solid rubber balls. The ball game spread to other cultures throughout much of Mesoamerica and it was named in different ways according to the several aboriginal languages: tlachtli in the Nahuatl language; teladzi was the Zapotecan word referring to this game, while the Mayan word was pok-ta-pok.
The Nahuatl people believed that gods invented and already practiced this game 400 years before the creation of the earth and mankind. In the deities’ world the stars were used as balls while the sky itself was the playing field.
Mesoamerican gods were also believed to be the first ones to play the ball game on earth, precisely in Teotihuacán, the city of the gods, where the first tlachco, a building specifically created for the practice of this sport, was located.
The priests who served the gods were the first people to learn how to throw the rubber ball and make it pass through the tlachtemalácatl: a ring of carved stone. This game spread from the inhabitants of Teotihuacán, to other Mesoamerican populations including the Toltecs, Zapotecas, Mexicas, Mixtecas and Mayas. The sport was practiced by the main community representatives such as the Tlatoanis, the priests and the warriors, since, only these categories of the society had the right to learn the rules of this game. During the previous night of a ball game competition, players paid homage to gods, in order to gain their favour and obtain the magical power to win the tlachtli contest.
Playing courts were built near the temples and consisted of a flat rectangular surface set between two parallel vertical stone walls. Each side could have a large vertical stone ring set in the centre of each of the sides. The Mayan ball court in Chichen-Itza is one of the most important and better preserved ball courts in Mesoamerica.
The ball was made of rubber or latex extracted from trees during a special ceremony and it was about 12 cm in diameter, and weighing between 3 kilos 200 grams and 4 kilos. Players wore protective gear such as belts and padding for the knees, hips, elbows and wrists, and adorned themselves with bracelets and pectorals.
They also wore a padded helmet or a huge feathered head-dress, perhaps the latter being for ceremonial purposes only. The entrance of the players into the tlachco was accompanied by the rhythmic sound of teponaxtlis, bells, flutes and rattles. Dances and music mixed in this magical ritual with the tribute paid to the gods to obtain their favours and the victory.
The macehuales, who were the commoners in the Mexican Empire society, seated separately from the priests and the majors warriors to whom seats of honour were reserved. 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 ball through one of the rings. Players could not use their hands and feet, only their hips could touch the ball. There were two tlachtemalácatl, one for each contender. One was located in the middle of the wall on the right and the other in the middle of the left wall.
The ball bounced on walls and slopes which were painted in red, the sacred colour, the colour of blood, the one preferred by the gods. Teams might vary in size from two to six players. They played barefoot and could only hit the ball with their hips, sometimes with their knees or elbows. If a player touched the ball with another part of the body he received, what nowadays we call, a red card. A player was allowed to receive up to eight red cards. When a player managed to get the ball through its tlachtemalácatl (ring), not through that of the opponents’ team, that usually ended the game. However, points were also scored when a player hit a member of the opposing team by launching the ball. The team with the most points won.
The Mesoamerican ball game was a game where the action reached unimaginable levels of violence. Serious injury was common and players often ended the game bloodied and bruised. The game also had a modern aspect: gambling. Attendants at ball games wagered everything they possessed, sometimes their own freedom, family or even life, on the outcome of a game. The ball game, which originally was really violent and bloody, was softened over time and it became a peaceful sport between two teams, without losing, however, its religious significance.
The practice must have been widespread at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, since the inhabitants of Tochtepec and Otatitlán alone offered 16 thousand rubber balls to Montezuma. This game, therefore, was also practiced to settle disputes, ease tensions or to bet. The game was banned by the Spanish conquerors because it was considered a performance that exalted the indigenous divinities.
– Javier Ruiz Ocampo