Blood Sport

In the Mayan game of pitz, the first team sport in human history, two sets of players squared off in a ball court that could stretch as long as a football field. The object of the game was to use hips and elbows to keep the ball in the air and, if possible, get it through a hoop set high on a stone wall. The ball was roughly the size and heft of a human head. Indeed, given the sheer number of decapitations in the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan text that prominently features the game, scholars have not ruled out the possibility that the teams sometimes played with the heads of sacrificial victims. It’s also probable that, at the conclusion of the game, one team or the other fell en masse beneath the priests’ daggers.

Pitz was intimately connected to the religious rituals of the Mayans. But it was also a re-enactment of war. Team sports faithfully reproduce the conditions of a battlefield: two irreconcilable foes, displays of courage and endurance, team loyalty as a form of tribalism or nationalism, the veneration of winners and the castigation of losers. Were the Mayans especially bloodthirsty in their combination of play and sacrifice? No more so than Romans egging on the gladiators at the Coliseum. And remember: It wasn’t that long ago that we dispensed with ritual reenactments and treated war as a spectator sport. In July 1861, Washingtonians took their picnic baskets out to Bull Run stream in Manassas to take in the show and root for one side or the other. (Today, partisans cheer the home team from the safety of the living room, and TV networks are generally careful not to show too much carnage to ruin the evening meal.)

Sports and war have long had an intimate connection. The marathon was born during the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, when a Greek messenger allegedly ran 25 miles to Athens to announce the victory. The biathlon — skiing and shooting — began as training for Norwegian soldiers. Boxing, fencing, and martial arts all bring hand-to-hand combat into the sporting world. Like pitz, the Olympics are a ritual reenactment of battle, where nations compete for gold and glory.

Governments have also used sports more deliberately in the service of war and conquest. In the United States, for instance, “baseball prepped the nation for World War I with its close-order drills at ballparks,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Robert Elias in The Foreign Policy of Baseball. “Ballplayers used their throwing skills to train soldiers in tossing hand grenades. Baseball accompanied the endless U.S. military and corporate interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, and even Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. According to Albert Spalding, whose sporting goods company was an early supporter of American expansionism: ‘The United States has no lands or tribes to conquer but it is only to be expected that Base Ball will invade our new possessions and [demonstrate] that possession’s American-ness.’”

Sports have been bloodied by their association with politics. But politics, too, has become a blood sport. Like pitz, what goes on inside the sacred ring known as the Beltway is a fight to the death between two opposing teams. A Republican siding with the Democrats has become as unheard of as a Yankees pitcher striding over to the Red Sox dugout and offering to throw a few for the other side. Team loyalty is absolute. If you don’t vote the party line, the party will sacrifice you in the next elections.

Then there’s the increasingly disturbing connection between tea party anger and guns. “We are turning our guns on anyone who doesn’t support constitutional conservative candidates,” tea party leader Dale Robertson said as a warning to moderate Republicans. Sarah Palin’s “Don’t Retreat, Reload” campaign, with gun crosshairs over targeted state races, reinforces the image of politics as a blood sport. Anti-government militias are coming out of the woods to sponsor “open-carry” tea party rallies. The tea party movement, which draws on some legitimate populist anger over high unemployment rates and Wall Street excesses, looks more and more like one of those “hooligan firms” affiliated with soccer teams, whose expressed purpose is to brawl with the fans on the opposing side.

I don’t get misty-eyed for the days of bipartisanism. After all, the bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was nothing to get nostalgic about. When we’ve gone to war, it’s generally been a bipartisan affair. But when people start pulling out their guns, I start to worry. The Washington game is getting rougher and uglier. Kicking around human heads might be just around the corner.

Anyone for pitz?

Winners and Losers

Except for those new games that promote cooperation over competition, sports encourage a zero-sum mentality. There are winners and losers. Those games that end in a tie must be decided by “sudden death,” a nod perhaps to our pitz-playing predecessors.

This summer, the World Cup will take place for the first time in Africa. But in the host city of Cape Town, winners and losers have emerged even before the opening whistle. “There have been numerous cases of forced housing evictions resulting in court cases due to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup,” a South African lawyer tells FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek in Postcard from…Cape Town. “In Johannesburg, the private owners of apartments are evicting tenants to ‘renovate’ the apartments in order to rent them at much higher rent to visitors coming to the World Cup. Another tactic used by those owners is the sudden hike of apartment rents to force tenants out. At the same time, there has been rising tension between South Africans being pushed out of their housing and foreigners looking for accommodation.”

Elections, too, are a game with winners and losers. In the recent elections in Iraq, argues FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in Iraq’s Baby Steps Toward Democracy, the winners were the Iraqi people. “The participation of Iraqis in their election and the enforcement of election laws by Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission are but two examples of small steps toward democracy,” he writes. If a stable and functional government is formed, the Iraqi people will have another opportunity to sustain and cement their democracy. Central to this process will be the strengthening of civil society.”

Egypt is gearing up for elections, and this time they might actually mean something. “Egypt, one of the most powerful U.S. allies in the Arab world, is sitting on a political volcano ready to erupt at any moment,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian. “The upcoming presidential elections will be a potential watershed in Egyptian politics and a fierce battle for Egypt’s soul. The United States can play a productive role in the transformation of Egyptian politics. By not interfering and by nudging Israel away from its hard line, the Obama administration could considerably increase the odds of a transition to substantive democracy in this critical Middle Eastern country.”

Women, Western Sahara, and West Bank

The scorecard for women this year, on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly, according to FPIF columnist Christine Ahn and contributor Anasuya Sengupta.

A “major disappointment in reviewing the Beijing Platform for Action was in the area of ensuring women’s leadership at the peacemaking table and in the peace building process,” they write in The State of the World’s Women. “Three major Security Council resolutions (UNSC 1325, 1820 and 1888) in the past decade have sought greater women’s participation and addressed sexual violence as security concerns. However, according to UNIFEM, of the 10 major peace processes of the past decade, on average, only 6 percent of negotiators and only 3 percent of signatories were women.”

One woman who has been involved in peace processes has been Aminatou Haidar, who has been struggling on behalf of the people of Western Sahara. Recently, however, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate produced a letter in support of Morocco’s claims over the territory.

“The letter, signed by 54 senators, insists that the United States endorse Morocco’s ‘autonomy’ plan as the means of settling the conflict,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in U.S. Lawmakers Support Illegal Annexation. “As such, the Senate opposes the vast majority of the world’s governments and a broad consensus of international legal scholars, who recognize the illegality of such an imposed settlement. More than 75 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which represents the people of Western Sahara under the leadership of the Polisario Front. The SADR is also a full member state of the African Union, and has governed nearly half of the people in liberated zones in Western Sahara as well as refugee camps in Algeria for nearly 35 years. The majority of Congress, however, wants the United States to pressure Polisario to surrender the Western Saharan people’s right to self-determination and accept the sovereignty of a conquering power.”

Finally, for those in the Washington, DC area, please come out on Saturday, April 10 at 6 p.m. to Busboys and Poets (14th St. and V), where FPIF contributor Ellen O’Grady will talk about her travels and artwork in the West Bank. You can see examples of her powerful work in this 2007 article, A Visit to Hani’s House. You can RSVP and get more information here.

beneath the priests’ daggers.
John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.