Students of the Game

When the Aztec and Maya played it 500 to 1,000 years ago, the losers sometimes lost their heads—literally. Today scholars are visiting remote Mexican villages to study the oldest sport in the Americas, ulama, now on the verge of extinction

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So far, artifical rubber has failed to replicate the look, feel and, most important, remarkable bouncing properties of traditional balls. “Look at this,” says Páez after the game at Los Llanitos. He drops a lumpy white blob of low-grade latex rubber, the result of Jesús Gómez’s latest experiments, and watches it bounce erratically off his patio. “This doesn’t work,” he says with visible disgust. “It’s not natural rubber.” But the researchers have not given up. In La Savila, a neighboring village, Aguilar says players are field-testing a ball made of another artifical compound, and he remains optimistic that a substitute may soon be found.

After rubber balls, what ulama may need more than anything is followers. Although players have been invited to resorts in the Yucatán to perform for tourists in faux-Maya extravaganzas—complete with drums, feather headdresses and face paint—most decline, regarding the displays as exploitative and culturally inaccurate. For Páez and his teammates, ulama is a living sport that tourists should appreciate on its own terms, not a curiosity. Aguilar and his colleagues are working to convince Spanish-language television networks to sponsor a tour that would bring ulama to the streets of Los Angeles and other Latino population centers in the United States. Perhaps here, in a nation increasingly proud of its Latino roots, the oldest sport in the Americas will find the fans sufficient to carry it through another millennium or two.


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