By Ralph Graves
April 1999 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 18, Number 8

The stands are full. The opposing teams meet in mid-court. As the game progresses, alcoholic beverages flow freely and wagering intensifies.

Super Bowl? World Cup? World Series? No, its Tlatchtli, Mexicos pre-Columbian ball game, and the forerunner of soccer, football, basketball and other sports played with a rubber ball.

Tlatchtli is thought to have originated more than 3,500 years ago with the Olmecs, one of Mexicos earliest cultures. The Olmecs were known as the "rubber people" because of their extensive use of the material, one being the hard rubber ball used in the ritual game.

From the Olmecs, the game of Tlatchtli spread to succeeding cultures. Architectural ruins of the Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mayas, Mixtecs, Totonacs and Aztecs, among others, include remnants of ball courts, all of a similar configuration. By the time of the Conquest, the game was an integral part of Meso-American culture and had spread as far south as Costa Rica.

The object of the game was to move a six-inch rubber ball from one end of a long, narrow court to the other and through a stone ring just barely large enough to allow the ball to pass through.

The ball was not to touch the ground, and players could use only their hips, thighs or knees to advance the ball. The earliest versions of the game were more of a religious rite than a sporting event.

It probably began as a private diversion for priests and the ruling classes. Teams comprised slaves, or captured warriors who were often forced to play until they dropped from exhaustion.

And although they wore pads and helmets, it was usual for players to die of internal injuries caused by bodily contact or falls on the stone-paved playing surface. As the game evolved over the centuries, the specifics changed and it became less of an exclusive ritual; more of a public event, although the religious overtones persisted.

The exact rules and procedures are still not clear, and may have varied from time to time and place to place. Our only written accounts are >from the Spanish conquistadors who witnessed the game as played by the Aztecs.

The sixteenth century writer, Olviedo, provided one such description, but even this was imprecise, as he focused primarily on "the miracle substance, rubber" and the fact that the losing teams captain was beheaded.

Some of the courts unearthed by archaeologists did have death symbols and replicas of skulls, giving rise to speculation that the games indeed involved human sacrifices.

Since certain ritual sacrifices were common among some pre-Columbian religions, and because Tlatchtli courts were invariably located adjacent to religious buildings or temples, it might be assumed that sacrifices were part of the ritual games.

One known rule of the game was that the ball had to be kept in the air by a team. Another rule forbade players to touch the ball with their hands, feet or head. The number of players on a team could vary, from as few as six to as many as thirty in important contests.

The court sizes also varied, the shape (long and narrow, with widened areas at both ends) was usually the same. Goals or scores where the ball was actually put through the hoop were probably rare, since the rings were placed vertically halfway up a fifteen-foot wall. But points were accumulated for other achievements by a player or team.

Striking the ring with the ball gained points, while allowing the ball to fall on the ground cost points, and resulted in turnovers, penalties or a "free ball" scramble for possession.

There apparently were no time limits or specified periods of play.

The game continued until a team scored a predetermined number of points. There was no time-cuts, no substitutions, no dribbling, no running with the ball and no tackling. One can only speculate how modern day athletes would fare under such conditions.

However, Tlatchtli did incorporate some features of todays professional sports (or vice versa). Terra cotta figurines, codices and frescos from ancient sites show players heavily padded and wearing helmets. They also show spectators drinking and gambling.

And if losers were at risk of being beheaded, winners were amply rewarded. As with their 20th century counterparts, superstars received gifts, adulation of the crowds and promotions to higher rankings. Some became folk heroes, idolized in monuments and codices. It is not known if players received salaries or could negotiate income from owners, but its a sure bet they didnt reap the lucrative product endorsement income savored by the pros of today.