July 06, 2007

A Note on Sports in the (Very) Deep South

Not long ago, the entire staff of The Off-Color Commentator (all one of us) packed up our belongings and made a hajj to the land of Belize. In addition to finding a landscape pockmarked with concrete basketball courts (one of which is pictured above), we came across a couple of notably bizarre athletic traditions.

One such athletic endeavor was a game called Pok-A-Tok. This game, for those not in the know, was played by the ancient Mayans. For the most part, it was a very simple game: The competitors played in a small area surrounded by stone and attempted to get a ball through a hoop by hitting it with their elbows, knees or hips.

The only catch was that after a match was completed, oftentimes everyone who played (both winners and losers) were beheaded. Apparently this was considered an honor, and it was said that the players would then go to the underworld and compete against the gods in a high stakes Pok-A-Tok showdown. The winners would be allowed to leave the underworld and return to their regular lives above ground, where they would be celebrated as heroes. (Seems like with such high stakes, there would be a major incentive to use performance-enhancing drugs.)

In case you’re wondering what the court looks like, here’s a picture of the one we visited in the Guatemalan city of Tikal:

The game was played in the narrow area between the two stone structures. Pretty wild that people’s fates (and eternal salvation or damnation) were decided on a strip of grass barely wider than a single lane of traffic.

For the record, we did try get a pick-up game together with some locals, but apparently no one was willing to die.


That same day, we also had the opportunity to climb to the top of some ancient Mayan stone pyramids, which provided some pretty extraordinary views. To give you a sense of how impressive the vantage point is, word on the street is that the jungle scenes from Return of the Jedi (with treetops as far as you could see) were shot there.

But here’s the trick: To see the views, you had to get to the top of the pyramids. And there wasn’t exactly a chair lift taking you to the top. No, to reach the summit of these ancient structures, you had to scale right up the side of them.

The most treacherous such climb was up a narrow, almost vertical ladder shooting up the side of Pyramid #5 (that’s The OCC himself climbing up the ladder, pictured below)

Safe to say this was a rather frightening experience. The ladder, consisting of wooden steps about a foot and a half apart (one atop the other) afforded no real protection from the sheer drop below except for a pair of hand rails to hang onto. About two thirds of the way up, there was definitely a gut check moment where we paused, feeling out of breath and exhausted in the heat, but knew there was no choice but to continue.

Fortunately, we managed to avoid death that day, but others challenging the pyramids in Tikal have not been so lucky. The first pyramid we climbed on the day (Pyramid #3) had quite a history. According to our guide, the day before we were there, a man had fallen down 55 steps – and lived. (And frankly, having climbed up the worn, narrow stone steps, it's easy to see how someone might fall.)

Our guide also mentioned an incident nine months earlier, when a Dutch tourist fell to her death on the very same pyramid.

Asked how this thing could still be open to tourists without any warning signs or upgraded safety standards in the wake of these gruesome falls, the guide pretty much summed up everything when he said, “Welcome to Guatemala.”


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