Almost every major team sport centers around a bouncy rubber ball. Volleyball, basketball, football, and so many other sports rely on the rubber ball for its unique qualities that have allowed it to dominate ball-based team sports. However, thousands of years before any of these modern sports would even be formed, the rubber ball began its journey into sporting dominance in the Olmec Empire.
Located in modern-day Mexico, the Olmec Empire created the basic framework of the sport that would dominate the Meso-American world until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Little is known about their version of the game, with only a few pictorial representations and an ancient rubber ball as evidence of the birth of the sport.
The basic premise of the game has some similarities in to modern-day American handball. Each team, consisting of 2-3 players would try to hit a solid rubber ball into their opponent’s wall, while also defending their wall and keeping the ball from bouncing more than once on the ground. generally players could not use their hands to catch or throw the ball, with some versions even limiting players to only use their hips to hit the ball.
The layout of the ball court remained relatively consistent throughout its various cultural iterations. The shape of the court resembled an capital “I” with two walls facing each other making up the long center of the “I”. Spectators sat at the far ends of the court and often on top of the walls themselves. The playing area was usually are hard surface of compacted dirt and earth, though some wealthier courts used stone and plaster floors.
Various versions of the game popped up in different civilizations throughout Central America and even the Caribbean. Some, like the people of Teotihuacan, used sticks similar to modern baseball bats and smaller balls. In many versions of the game, especially that of the Mayans, a ball court had a hoop on either wall positioned high and perpendicular to the ground. Players would try to go for extra points or automatic wins, depending on the variant, by hitting the ball through their opponent’s hoop.
These ballgames were ingrained into the cultures and lifestyles of Meso-American civilization. For these cultures game symbolized warfare and battle, with religious connections being integral to most variants. Some less centralized empires even used the sport to decide conflicts without bloodshed. Others, like the Aztecs, enjoyed a religious aspect of the game representing a battle between deities, but otherwise simply enjoyed the game as a fun pastime. However the Mayan’s take on the game was much more violent and bloody. As evidenced by their depictions of the sport, the significance of each game was life or death. As a part of their practice of ritual human sacrifice the losing team, captain, or in some rare cases the winning team, would be sacrificed as an extreme part of the religious aspect of the game.
While the sport is still shrouded in a lot of mystery, thanks in part to the Spanish conquest and subsequent cultural purge of Central America, it was its use of a rubber ball that helped shape the modern sporting world as we know it today.