Who Lost Their Heads for a Sport?

The Aztecs, Mayas, and other peoples who lived in America before the first Europeans arrived played spectator sports just as we do today.

The most popular of these sports, called tlachtli by the Aztecs, was something like a cross between volleyball, soccer, and basketball. But to some players, tlachtli could be much more dangerous than any of those sports are today.

Games similar to tlachtli were widely played by the Olmecs of Middle America before the fifth century B.C. The Aztecs played their version of the game on a court set up between two walls, with a line drawn across the center of the court. Players could use their elbows, knees, and hips to knock a heavy rubber ball back and forth over the center line or to bounce the ball off the walls to the opposing team’s side of the court.

Two stone rings were set about 20 feet above the court, one on each of the side walls. If a player could knock the ball through one of these rings, his team won the match immediately. The player scoring the goal was allowed to seize the possessions of any spectator he could catch!

Members of the losing team did not fare so well. In some Aztec matches, the captain of the losing team was beheaded. And in the Mayan version of the game, an entire team was sometimes executed after losing a match!