UNESCO Monday #10: You Lose, You Die at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza Ball Game

Losing, failing, being defeated! There is no nice way to say it and in today’s sporting world, not measuring up to expectations could be the end of your career. Teams want to win and they want to win now. While we might think that the stakes are higher now than ever, at the end of the day, athletes still have their millions of dollars, their families, and their health. Losing a ball game for the ancient Maya had slightly higher stakes however. Lose the game, lose your head.

This “ball court” room of Chichen Itza is the Colosseum of Meso-America, an athletic sports arena where kings and queens were entertained by their most talented professional players. The game was played by using ones joints (hips, elbows, and knees only) to try to launch a small rubber ball into one of the two holes on either side of the court. As tradition would have it, the captain of the losing team was often decapitated, and in many cases, the head was stuffed with rubber and became the new ball. Talk about playing like your life depends on it. I bet no one took any plays off in this game!

I visited Chichen Itza the day after New Year’s in 2011 and again a few days later. I couldn’t believe upon my second visit that I had actually missed this room altogether the first time. Although it is adjacent to the famous pyramid of “El Castillo,” there are so many things going on here that it is easy for one to be distracted. We arrived kind of late the first time and were rushing a bit to see as much as possible before moving on to Tulum and Sian Ka’an. It is amazing what we can sometimes miss such fantastic things right in front of us if we cram too much into a vacation. My second look of Chichen Itza taught me to slow it down and look up every once in a while. Who knows, there might be a deadly game going on.


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Julio Moreno
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