So, I went to a bullfight

Yes, as the title indicates, I have decided not to beat around the bush, and come out with it. I am travelling around seeing lots of different sports, and while in Spain I felt I had a duty to see “Los Toros”. Because it is controversial, because it straddles sport, art and something else, and because blood sports like this used to be common across Europe , and are still common in much of the world. Therefore, it seemed necessary to have a look at one, especially in a country where, in some quartets, it is feted as a high art form. In others it is banned outright. An challenging beast of an event to be dealing with. I am not alone in dealing with challenging beasts, for the matadors, to give them some credit, are taking on animals of 4-5 years old, weighing 500-600kgs. The bull pounds out into the corrida (arena), all taut muscle and powerful hoof beats. Initially it does not face the matador, but is worked by a series of supporting “players” with capes, who goad the bull into charges, before hiding behind wooden screens. After this the bull faces the picadores, mounted combatants who stab into the bulls shoulders and neck with a short-bladed spear. The horse is solidly protected by a large, thick cover. I was told that the horses didn’t use to be so well protected; it must’ve been a grisly sight. Instead, although we have blood of the bull in show, there is little gore, the primary purpose of these sections to tire the bull as it chases shadows or attempts to lift the horse. I’ll say now that many of the technicalities I know were gleaned from Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”. It is quite challenging to understand the purpose of much of what is on show otherwise. The bull chases some colourful men with capes, it charges a mounted man it can never defeat; it all seems very ritualised. Hardly the blood and thunder contest I had expected. Perhaps this is some kind of art, or something else, after all.

A quick parade before the action starts

After the picadores, the banderillas. These men bound towards the bull at an angle while it charges them, attempting to stick 2 wooden stakes into the muscle over the shoulder. In total 6 are placed, although not all find their mark, leaving the banderilla to scurry for cover. The stakes are gaudily coloured, creating a strange contrast against the dark bloody back and sides if the bull. Again however I see very little contest. The bull does not catch these fleet footed men, no do I think it is meant to. Instead, this further helps weaken the bull, preparing it for the matador. This is who comes next, stepping into the corrida, relatively alone. Facing a bloody, slightly tired, probably terrified, but still strong and angry bull.

The banderilla plays his part

Before the start I was walking to my allocated gate, when I came across a scrum of people. Eyes all aligned towards some external entrance. This was the crowd awaiting the matadors, the dashing idols of this “sport”. They even have their own twitter accounts… Like the fans gathered for the arrival of the team bus, huddled at the team tunnel, we stretched and strained and held aloft cameras to try and catch a glimpse. In a flash they were there, shaking hands, smiling, waving, bright-gold costumes glinting in the sun, and then they were gone. Apparently the top matadors can receive €80,000 a fight; we certainly received the superstar treatment.

Acting the part

Back in the corrida , again it was the matadors dishing out the treatment, using his cape to slip pass the charging bull: left, right, fleet plated together unmoving, even on his knees, all to the ohs and ahs and gathering applause of the crowd. This to me was more like some art, like a theatre performance by a talented actor, than a sporting contest. The crowd too put me more in mind of a theatre or opera crowd than a football or tennis crowd. Exceedingly smartly dressed, generally older, aficionados rather than supporters. To contrast with my Morocco football fans, watching from their seats rather than spurring their team or player on. This video shows it: the 2nd matador, Jose Manuel Manzanares, goes in for a clean sword placement to finish the fight. He is successful, and as the other cape bearers move in to stop the bull charging the matador again before it dies, the crowd applauds voraciously. They rise to their feet and wave white handkerchiefs to show their approval. How very gentile. 

It is not always so gentile. In this first fight the matador performed a great many passes, too many in fact, for the crowd started to whistle and jeer. Then when the sword finally came it was not a quick death. The bull staggered, floundered, and after it finally did fall it somehow managed to rise to its feet again, the death prolonged by minutes. Curiously, the crowd around me seemed to pay this no real heed. I guess if you pay to see death you accept some irregularities from the animal that struggles against it.

In general I was surprised to see so much variation in how well the matadors dealt death. One smooth and effective, the crowd loved him. Another, although the crowd did not favour his style he killed with a similar effectiveness. But the 3rd was simply bad at it. A young man, at only 23, he was clearly a bit if a darling of the crowd, and they greatly applauded his work with the bull and the cape. But his first strike with the sword, a jar against bone, and he was undone. Now in a vulnerable position, the bull caught him and tossed him through the air. Hearts leapt to mouths. Now in a tight ball on the floor, the bull stampeded over him, and I thought I was about to watch a man die. The crowd leaned closer. Was I happy about this? If it was a sport, a contest I was after, then surely both sides losing should be possible. In which case the death of the matador would strengthen bullfighting’s position as a sport. So did I want his death?
Thankfully, the watching cape-bearers sprung into action, diverting the bull off the prone man and he was saved. Somewhat less thankfully, he then went back and, after a couple of attempts, finished the job. He also made a meal of killing his 2md bull (each matador kills 2 bulls per corrida, giving the crowd 6 deaths in total), leaving me in doubt as to his ability. It also left me in no doubt as to the status of this event. There is no genuine contest, man is not against bull, nor are the matadores competing against each other. Whether then what this dance between man and animal produces some kind of art, that is up to you.

I watched after the fight where the matador was caught by the bull as he limped, grimaced and crept round to the infirmary. Hand clutched to his side, pained etched across his face, gaudy costume torn. You could see the crowd as he passed crane closer, peering at him. What’s in it for them I wondered. They had nearly seen him die. Perhaps the death is what they were after. To be close, to lean in, to pull anguished faces and gape as he passes. To catch the tang of death off him as he comes by. The matadors both knowingly put themselves in danger, close to death, and also deal it. They wear the shroud of death closely. Is that what the crowd were after, to pass close by this messenger of death? To feel close to the rawness of it, but ultimately safe from it? The matador as well, is the draw for him the closeness of death, with one wrong step and a swish of the bulls horns.

It seems likely. Closeness to death, or at least risk of injury, is a common aspect of many sports. I myself, at 26, no longer play rugby or football due to a debilitating knee injury picked up in the former. Such things are not uncommon. A few days after the bullfight I was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, watching climbers tackle various routes. Yes they have ropes and harnesses and a partner keeping them safe, but accidents happen and falls are never that far away. Climbing is very technically and physically demanding, but it also has that inherent danger to it that makes it, maybe like the bullfight, such an enticing prospect.

It is hard to deny the common element if danger, but it is curious we find it so attractive. Would ancestral (wo)man who enjoyed being that little bit closer to death have some competitive advantage? Perhaps it helped the essential hunt of prey, especially the larger, more dangerous beasts. Perhaps this was essential to success for our ancestors. Perhaps this is what the bull fight apes. But as the bull was dragged out of the arena, to the sound of music, applause and the waving of white handkerchiefs, sunlight gleaming from sunglasses and flashing off fascinators, it was quite hard to picture anything essential about the spectacle at all.

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