With little regard for joints or bones, bare-chested men hurl their bodies at a hard floor and contort their limbs to strike a heavy rubber ball with their hips.
They are practitioners of the ancient sport of Pok ta Pok, sometimes translated as Mayan ball, and have been competing in the game’s very own World Cup.
Participants, mostly indigenous Mayans from three Mexican states, as well as Guatemala, Panama and reigning champions Belize, vied for the world title in the Mexican town of Merida.
Belize won the championship once again, defeating Mexico in the final on Friday.
But unlike ancient Pok ta Pok athletes, these competitors were not playing for their lives, merely pride.
In pre-Columbian times, the outcome could be worse than defeat: players risked being sacrificed, usually by decapitation.
The tradition varied over the centuries, researchers say: sometimes, it was the winners who were killed, which was considered an honor.
Sometimes the losers were the ones to pay the ultimate price. The game was banned by the Spanish conquistadors shortly after their arrival in Mexico in 1519.
Like in most ball team sports, the aim of Pok ta Pok is to get the ball through the opposing team’s defenses to score.
Four members per team play in two halves of 13 minutes each, and may touch the solid rubber ball weighing more than two kilos only with their hips.
If another body part gets involved, points are deducted.
Each team can strike the ball only once before the turn passes to their opponents.
And while lives are no longer at stake, the game is not without risk.
“I come to bless the players so they don’t twist a foot, so they don’t break a bone, (tear) a tendon or something,” said Tiburcio Can May, a Mayan healer who blew on a shell and shook smoke at participants in a pre-games ceremony.
“In order for them to be able to run well on the field, we have to ask the lord of the underworld, Xibalba, we have to ask the 13 gods, we have to ask the lord of the Universe, Mother Earth, because they are going to play a very sacred game.”
For France Novelo, a player from Belize, Pok ta Pok is “a way to rescue culture in our country.”
Jose Manrique, president of the Central American and Caribbean Association of the Ancestral Sport of the Mayan Ball, added: “We have to honor the memory of our grandparents, we have to honor our Mayan gods. That is why the ball game continues to be a ceremony for us.”
The previous games were held in Chichen Itza, Mexico, in 2015, Guatemala in 2017 and El Salvador in 2019.