Death in the afternoon in Madrid

There are many styles of bullfighting around the world, but in Spain, death is inevitable for the beast.

At around 6:30 p.m on a Sunday evening, about 20,000 people packed into Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, a bullfighting ring in Madrid.

Music started blaring from speakers around the circular spectator stands. A lone bull entered the arena. It stood quietly at the centre, seemingly at a loss. Several men then joined the beast in the ring, waving pieces of red cape known as muleta. The waving enraged the animal and soon it charged and rushed at the moving fabric.

In came the matador, mounted on the back of a white horse. With a lance in his right hand, the matador started to irritate the bull by chasing it around the arena. The horse galloped to avoid being jabbed by the bull's fierce horns and after minutes of this teasing and dancing, the matador then stabbed the bull with the spear. This was just the start of the bull's suffering. The process continued until five of six lances had pierced the back of the bull's neck. It continued to charge as blood oozed from its wounds. The agony came with one sharp jab of a sword vertically into the top of its spine. The bull fell. The audience cheered and waved pieces of white cloth to show their appreciation towards the bullfighter.

That was round one. The next bull, equally confused as the first then came into the ring.

Its only defence against the matador's provocation was its horns. During one of the rounds, the bull simply would not be provoked. It escaped and ran into the aisle between the spectators' area and the arena, which raised a clamour among the audience. The matadors didn't give up and after the first spear went into the animal's back, it had no choice but engage in the fight. In the end, death was inevitable.

At the end of each round, the music rose again as the dead bull laid bloody in the ring.  Three horses would come in to drag the defeated bull around the ring, its bloody makes streaks across the sand. In one particular round, the bull died near the entrance where the horses were to enter. The assistants had to pull it back to the centre so that the horses could come in for the death march around the arena. The triumphant matador walked around the arena, soaking in the honour from the spectators.

The same process was repeated six times with three matadors competing for the highest scores. Pointed were awarded based on the matador's style, bravery and his ability to dominate the beast.

History

Spanish bullfighting can be traced back to as early as the 8th century. This gladiator game started as a commemoration of the reign of King Alfonso VIII, famous for this conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. At first, it was just an entertainment among Spanish aristocrats until King Felipe V ended it on the ground that it was a vulgar spectacle. Commoners further improvised the bullfighting with new elements such as dodging and stabbing the bull around the 18th century. There are currently four bullrings in Spain in Ronda, Madrid, Seville and Pamplona.

Bulls

Bulls selected for fights are usually purebred species from North Africa. After four to five years of cultivation in domestication field, they are ready for fights. Nevertheless, bulls are not trained to be aggressive but something inborn. In addition, bulls are colourblind. It is not the redness of the cloth that provokes them but when it swings. Furthermore, the weights of bulls used for official events can range from 400 to 500 kg.

Today, bullfighting is popular among locals and tourists alike. The League Against Cruel Sports, a charity for animals, has compared it with game hunting, dog fighting and badger baiting. But the bullfighting has long inspired poets and writers to ponder on its metaphor on survival and power.

The American writer, Ernest Hemingway, for example, was mesmerised by bullfighting and spent years in Spain during which this battle between man and beast was his only topic. "I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after," Hemingway said of bullfighting in "Death in the Afternoon", a novel devoted to the Spanish tradition. His overall assessment: "I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine."

And judging from the spectators' reaction in Madrid today, they too felt fine to allow this tradition to continue.

Stages of a bullfight  

A bullfight is usually led by three matadors (killer of bulls) and six bulls, followed by each matador with two rounds of performance. The three bullfighters will be assisted by two picadores (lancers) riding on horseback, three banderilleros (flagmen) and a mozo de espada (sword servant). The team also includes ayuda (assistant to Assistant to sword servant and subalternos (subordinates). The result of each battle is unpredictable since it is subjected to many factors, such as the tactics of the bullfighters and the level of training and aggressiveness of bulls.

Opening Parade (Tercio de Varas)

The performance begins with a band playing music, followed by matadors dressing in the shimmering 16th-century costumes with supporting crew coming out of the tunnel and touring around the bullring. Then the crew bow to the plaza judge, standby and the bull is released into the ring.

Cape Stage

The first stage of the game is also known as the cape stage. Matadors will test the strength and aggressiveness of the bulls with a series of passes and a thrusting cape. He also pays attention to the head movements and if the bull has a favoured territory. The matador's first attack is called suerte de capote. One of the common passes he makes is veronica where the matador lets his cloaks trail over the bull and run past it.

Next, the two picadores armed with a lance and mounted on blindfolded horses enter the arena. The running horses will provoke the bull to do the first attack. The picador stabs a morrilo on the bull's neck leading to its first drain of blood. The loss of blood will make the bull feeling dainty. [padded]

Then the picador stabs the head of the bull with the lance, the bull will lift the picador's horse with the force on its neck, which causes further weakening of the neck and less dangerous.

This stage is compulsory since plaza judge requires a number of hits to be made before the game is finished.

Banderillas stage

Three banderilleros (dart throwers) will stab two banderillas (barbed stick with colour papers) in the bull shoulders. These further cause the significant loss of blood and is drained. The matador the comes with cape and sword armed and drain the bull with a few more runs. Then, it might be matadors' turn to plant banderillas.

Death stage

The matador enters the ring on foot with a sword and a red cape. He stares into the bull's eyes and waves the cape to encourage the bull to charge. The fight ends with the matador jabbing the sword into the crest of the bull's back, piercing its heart. The bull dies.

Rewards of bullfighters

1. "Ear reward"

If a bullfighter's performance is appealing, the audience will wave their white flags. If the plaza judge can confirm that 80% of the audience or above have waved the flags, bullfighter will be awarded a bull's ear.

2. "Double ear reward"

If a bullfighter's performance is delightful, and most audiences are thrusting their white flags non-stop,the crew of plaza judge will decide to give the bullfighters another bull ear.

3. "Double-ear and a tail"

It is rare for a bullfighter to be awarded an extra bull tail. This is the highest achievement for a bullfighter.

Types of Spanish bullfight

Corrida de toros: The bullfighters fight on foot holding a muletamatador (red cape). The bull selected for the bullfighting must weight at least 470kg and must be at least four years old.

Corrida de novillos: The bullfighters bear swords as they tease and stab the animal while dancing around it on the ground. These bulls are less than four years old and are known as novillos (novice) because they lack the fierceness needed for a more violent battle. Corrida de rejones: The bullfighter fight enters the ring on horseback (picadores) with his team of peaones (assistants) standing by.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) is an English news publication produced by international journalism students at Hong Kong Baptist University. It started as a printed magazine in 1969. Today, TYR is produced across different platforms.

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