Unlike bullfighting, bull leaping has no body count?—?and it’s way more insane.
My relationship with animals is rife with contradictions. I identify as an animal lover, but I’m not an animal activist. I have a rescue dog that I love more than most humans?—?but I still eat meat. I support hunting for food, but not sport. I understand that zoos are problematic, but that hasn’t stopped me from visiting them.
I do have some hard lines that I refuse to cross. I’ll never eat veal or wear fur or go to SeaWorld. I won’t wear makeup that’s been tested on animals. And I would rather die than go to the rodeo, run with the bulls or attend a bull fight.
My husband knows this about me, but that didn’t stop him from tormenting me mercilessly on our first trip to Spain. As we rode the train from Paris to Barcelona, he swore up and down that I told him I wanted to go see a bull fight. He told me he bought tickets months ago and they were so expensive and it was going to be such a culturally enriching experience. It was only after I started to cry that he copped to the joke and apologized profusely.
I stand by my overreaction. Regardless of its deep entrenchment within Spanish culture, bullfighting is horrifying. The Humane Society International estimates that bullfighting kills 250,000 bulls every year; Spain is responsible for 24,000 of those deaths. And Spaniards are by no means aligned on their feelings for the bloodsport?—?an online poll by Ipsos MORI finds that 58% of all Spanish adults oppose bullfighting. The country also disagrees with how the sport should be subsidized, with six out of every ten adults arguing that public funds should not be used to assist the industry.
Spaniards who support bullfighting insist it’s an art form, but I see it only as a premeditated massacre. Just because a tradition is old, doesn’t meant it has value?—?don’t forget, public executions were once considered a legitimate form of theater.
A more dangerous form of bullfighting
I spent five days this past fall in Spain, but it was only after I returned to the States that I learned about bull leaping. On its head, bull leaping is exactly what it sounds like?—?human beings dodging, jumping and flipping over bulls for sport. It’s like parkour, but with cattle.
Bull leaping or recorte, as the Spanish refer to it, is an even more dangerous alternative to bullfighting and it differs from the sport in several key ways: bull leapers (recortadores) enter the ring without capes or swords. They eschew the elaborate costumes of bullfighters in favor of simple athletic wear. And, most importantly, the bulls are never harmed.
4,000 years old
Bull leaping pre-dates bullfighting by some two thousand years. Artifacts from the Crete Minoan civilization indicate that bull leaping began back in 1,500 BCE in the city of Knossos, where its popularity helped Knossos ensure its place as a cultural hub of Crete. Remnants from this time period confirm both the existence of the sport and clearly illustrate how the ritual played out. Even from the beginning, bull leaping was an activity that valued gender inclusion?—?frescoes show us that both men and women took it in turns to acrobatically avoid their bull opponents.
Bull leaping still exists today, albeit in a more modern form. In Spain, recorte teams compete for the championship every year at the Plaza de Toros stadium in Valencia. Similar competitions take place in France and Colombia. In India, athletes compete in a related event called jallikattu, where participants attempt to leap onto a bull to retrieve packets of money that are tied to its horns.
Elegance and panache
In bull leaping, up to three bulls are released into a ring at one time. The bulls square off against two separate teams of recortadores, with each team containing between five and seven members. The teams compete against each other to see who can score the most points avoiding the bulls using only their athleticism and?—?sometimes?—?a vaulting pole. It’s a game of skill, bravery and endurance, with competitions frequently lasting up to four or five hours. Judges assign scores between zero and ten, handing out points for elegance, panache and composure.
Bull leapers employ different tactics to outmaneuver their opponents. Some grab the bulls by the horns and use them as leverage, flipping themselves clean across the bulls’ body. Others somersault over the bulls’ back, landing out of stampeding range. The most difficult technique is a twisting jump, which requires the athlete to hold their body in a pike position while leaping across the length of the animal. The team works together, distracting and repositioning the bull to give their teammate the best chance of clearing it.
The allure of bull leaping
Why would any sane person volunteer to square off against a bull, armed only with their wits and the clothes on their back? The answer isn’t money or fame; bull leapers rarely make enough cash through competition to sustain themselves and the sport is so localized that even top athletes fly under the radar. In France, bull leaping is known as the course Landaise and it is so specific to the southern region of the country that many French people have never even heard of the competition.
The real reason why athletes continue to show up and subject themselves to years of training, injuries and potential fatalities is simple: it’s for the love of the game. There are no corporate sponsorships in bull leaping. Bull leapers enter the ring seeking only an adrenaline rush and the satisfaction of leaving the arena in one piece.
Maybe that’s why I continue to hate bull fighting but now appreciate bull leaping as an art. In bullfighting, the relationship between the bull and the matador is always contentious. It’s the classic human struggle to assert control over anything that might be perceived as a challenge to our supremacy. No matter how you spin it, bullfighting is a battle to the death?—?and an unfair one at that.
But bull leapers don’t see the bulls as their enemies. Indeed, they consider the bulls their allies, a small hurdle to be overcome in their quest to becoming the best athletes they can be. For recortadores, the bulls are not the competition. As recortadore Jose Manuel Medina says, “It’s you against yourself.”