Most extreme sports are a misnomer. They may involve a skinned knee here or there, or the occasional black eye, but that’s it. They’re really not extreme at all, and are refer to a bunch of snowboarders drinking Mountain Dew while giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up for the camera.
Not so with the Mayan ball game. This ancient sport was played for thousands of years throughout Mesoamerica, and had great religious significance. The basic objective was to knock a rubber ball into the opponent’s side of the court by hitting it with the abdomen, thighs, or upper arms. Kicking or throwing the ball was not allowed. Gameplay was said to be incredibly violent as well, with players often ramming into each other at top speed in hopes of causing serious injury or death. This was not only allowed, it was actively encouraged by the referees.
Winning the ball game was great. The victors were treated with tremendous respect by the populace, because they had demonstrated they possessed the favor of the gods (Tlacolotl was supposedly a huge fan). The losers, meanwhile, got to have their hearts ripped out in a brutal blood ceremony on top of a stone pyramid. To add insult to injury, the high priests would then use the skull of the captain of the losing team to make the core of a new ball. As you might guess, players of the game were really motivated to give it their all.
There is some evidence that many of the ball games were fixed. War captives were often forced to play against the royal guard, and if it looked like they had a chance to win, a stray spear would be accidentally chucked from the audience into the offending player. FIFA is examining these allegations, and there is expected to be a press statement shortly.