5 Sports So Bloody, They Were Made Illegal
For years, activists have suggested that we ban the sport of golf. The reasoning is solid: Golf is extremely boring. Every year, numerous people who play golf die (though they don’t die while playing golf), as do numerous people who watch golf. One can only assume that both groups would live longer without golf, simply because they’d then have a greater will to live.
Apparently, however, “boredom” isn’t valid legal grounds for making a sport illegal. But countries do ban sports for other reasons. For example, when they decide the sport isn’t really about athleticism at all but just about taking a living being and delighting in inflicting pain on them. Such as in the not-so-noble sports of…
Bulls v. Birds
Southern Peru celebrates an annual Blood Festival, Yawar Fiesta. In many villages, the highlight of this event is a sort of bullfight. Except, rather than fight the bull directly, the matador organizes a fight between a bull and a bird.
That sounds absurd for several reasons. How could a tiny bird be a match for a terrifying bull? Why would the bird even want to fight the bull? Why wouldn’t it just fly away? The answers to those questions are, in order: They use an Andean condor (a huge bird with an 11-foot wingspan); they get the condor really drunk first; and they tie the condor directly to the bull. The result looks like this:
The festival celebrates Peruvian independence from Spain, and in the fight, the bull naturally represents Spain, while the condor represents Peru. The crowd sides with the condor, and if it loses, that’s a bad omen. It rarely does lose. It gouges the bull’s eyes out, then with the bird declared the victor, someone undoes the rope and sets it free.
The whole tradition is completely illegal, with laws banning the capture of wild animals and a specific presidential decree banning the capture of the vulnerable condor. Enforcing the law is a tricky matter, however. I mean, if you feel confident enough to arrest an entire arena of people armed with bulls and drunk birds of prey, be my guest.
We have a long history of animals tearing each other apart for our entertainment. We’ve told you about some of these before, like how England would bait bulls into fighting each other, or (more exciting) doing the same thing with bears. An 1835 animal welfare law stamped those sports out.
That didn’t outlaw every kind of fight, though. They hadn’t passed any law against killing rats, for instance. Of course they hadn’t — rats are vermin, and people have to kill rats just to keep a city safe and livable. And so, the blood-sport void was filled with the new game of rat-baiting. A ratcatcher would loosen a sack of rats into a pit, and then a competitor would unleash their dog to kill as fast as it could. A champion dog might beat 100 rats in five or six minutes, taking as little as three seconds for each kill.
Assuming that the ratcatcher really was catching the rats off the street and not secretly breeding them, the sport arguably improved conditions for the city overall. Still, the spectators always left with a mad look in their eyes, so the sport was eventually deemed gross enough to send the way of bear-baiting. Instead, said animal advocates, if you like dogs competing so much, why not enter them in competitive dog shows? The dog owners scratched their heads and said, “That’s a great idea actually,” and so, that’s what they did.
Let’s now consider the most proverbially docile animal of all: the lamb. Sheep do not fight. They will willingly let you kill them; the Bible tells us so. Nevertheless, in Algeria, they have made a sport out of sheep-fighting, training lambs from an early age to instill in them a taste for combat.
It starts with a trainer touring village herds, looking for lambs that seem a little hardier than most. The trainer buys the lamb and toughens it up using a very simple trick — chaining it to the wall by its horns. As it grows, its efforts to break away give it a strong neck. Once they’re adults, two rams will be eager to butt heads.
The sheep get such fearsome names as “Rambo,” “Ebola” and “Lawyer.” No one gambles on the matches, but this is still a sport for speculation and making money. The way it works, every time a match ends, the sheep who wins sees its value rise. The sheep who loses (it’s not a fight to the death) sees theirs drop. A top-rated ram might be worth $10,000.
Officially, sheep-fighting is illegal, and so organizers take some care to avoid authorities seeing them. But Algeria doesn’t put a lot of effort into enforcing the ban. It’s a fairly low-risk form of release for people’s aggression — safer, at least, than letting them get involved in politics.
We’re guessing you’ve heard of dwarf-tossing before. This stunt, popular in bars for some decades, has no known ancient roots but instead appears to have begun in the 1980s. Someone who’s (say) 6-feet tall picks up and throws someone who’s (say) 4-foot-3, maybe at a Velcro wall. Depending on the rules everyone agrees to, the winner might be whoever tosses their partner the farthest. New York and Florida have both banned dwarf-tossing. This says less about the shared philosophies of these two states as it does about how many bars each of them has, which is why dwarf-tossing became a matter of debate there at all.
To some activists against dwarf-tossing, banning the sport is a protective measure similar to all the other bans we’re talking about today. One big difference, though, is that the protected party in this case has a chance to weigh in on the issue. And while the organization Little People of America supports the ban and is currently asking more states to follow suit, some of the people who get tossed have very different opinions.
When France moved to ban dwarf-tossing, they faced a legal challenge from 3-foot-7 Manuel Wackenheim. Wackenheim said they were infringing on his rights by preventing him from being tossed. In 2002, he took his complaint all the way to the United Nations, who agreed that depriving someone of their employment is an affront to human dignity. But the U.N. ruled that dwarf-tossing is also an affront to human dignity, so they were cool with the ban. In the end, France let the ban wither away for their own reasons, because the one thing all sides could agree on was that the U.N.’s opinion never really mattered anyway.
Eel-pulling, besides being a euphemism for masturbation, is a traditional Dutch game. You stretch a rope across a canal and hang an eel from it midway through, then people sail under the rope and try to snatch the eel without it slipping from their grasp. In 1886, a neighborhood in Amsterdam cracked down on eel-pulling. Unlike with some of these bans, though, this didn’t mark the end of violence but the beginning.
One Sunday in July, police spotted a game of eel-pulling and put an end to it by cutting the rope. The crowd, who greatly outnumbered the police, turned on the officers, attacking them and dragging one to a basement for a thorough beating. People remained angry the following day and laid siege to the police station. The police had swords, which aren’t great tools for crowd control, so they sought help from the army. Soldiers showed up and put an end to the riot — by killing 26 people, and injuring over 100.
Hey, we’re no experts in 19th-century Dutch history, but we’re starting to think this place had some more serious issues than what sports people were playing lurking under the surface. Lurking under the surface, just like an eel.