Is Bullfighting Sport?

by Damian O’Donnell

Barcelona 1987. It’s August and still very hot. What a city. I love this place. It’s vibrant and colourful and bursting with a subdued (but not too subdued) excitement. It’s as if something is always bubbling just under the surface. The combination of the fascinating “old city” and the noisy, modern “new city” makes this place an amazing contradiction of architecture and culture. Antoni Gaudi’s astonishing “Sagrada Familia” stands in stark contrast to the glass and concrete of the modern office buildings. His gaudy and loopy art and architecture marks this city everywhere I look. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a life sized Leunig cartoon.

I’m wandering up the Ramba dels Estudis, making my way to a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros Monumental. I know the bullfight will probably shock me and may even disturb me, but it’s something I want to do, something I want to experience. I reckon a major event gives a person true insight to a city’s heart, albeit bullfighting is more theatre than sport.

I have a dull ache in my head from last night’s fun at a local café. I had been having a few beers with some Irish lads I had met in the pension I’m staying at. These boys are in Europe celebrating the end to their university exams and they’re taking to it particularly joyously. I had been holding my own until the owner of the café detected my Australian accent and, for some reason, decided a beer sculling competition was an Aussie national sport. He insisted I scull a two litre jug of beer. As he put the beer down in front of me the entire population of the café looked at me and began a slow hand clap. Not wanting to let the flag down I took up their challenge with gusto and slammed the empty jug down on the table like a flamenco dancer strutting his stuff. The Irish boys slapped me on the back and the café crowd celebrated the effort with Spanish outbursts of “Oiiii” and “Heyyyy” and “Australie!!” Unfortunately I became a victim of my own success as some minutes later I was urged to repeat the performance – and now I’m paying for my patriotism. 

As I stroll along I notice some young blokes set up a little card table and begin coaxing tourists into their world of magic tricks and sleight of hand.  One bloke has three bottle tops on his table with a peanut hidden underneath one of them. He invites tourists to guess where the peanut is after he shuffles the bottle tops across the card table in a flurry of hand movements. A large American tourist is taken in; a lamb to the slaughter. When there is no money riding on the result the tourist gets it right every time. Strangely, as soon as the tourist is convinced to gamble a few dollars (US dollars) on the result he loses every time.

The young man at the card table is having a ball. After each con he yells at the tourist:

“Ah, bad luck my friend, bad luck. One more time?”

The tourist is sucked in like a fly to the venus trap; lured in by the sweet scent of winning his money back. He punts again and again; recklessly, hopelessly. I cringe as I watch. Someone has to rescue this bloke.

Suddenly a whistle blows; the man with the table packs it up with an obviously well practiced haste and dashes off with it under his arm. Police appear and head after the culprit who is making for the narrow and confusing streets of the old city. The tourist is standing there confused and flustered.

As I arrive at le Monumental I am struck by its immense beauty. This is not a sporting arena, this is truly a monument; a somewhat confused mix of influences from the Moors and Byzantines with decorated archways and intricate carvings. I enter the gate and find myself in a busy undercover walkway that encircles the stadium. I make my away around the outside of the arena and eventually locate the section where my seat is. There’s an attendant leaning against the wall. I ask him for directions to my seat, forgetting that the Spaniards are not overly concerned with such detail. He looks at me through dark half-mast eyes and shrugs his shoulders. After a few awkward seconds he points lazily to some stairs. I realize that’s as detailed as the instructions will be.

My seat is not so much a seat as a concrete step. That’s what you get for buying a cheap ticket but I’m up high and have an expansive view of the whole place.

 There’s to be about six contests each lasting some twenty minutes, ranging from the junior matadors up to the most highly regarded and skilled. Each contest sees the bulls getting bigger and more aggressive.

The matador enters the arena and prances about, acknowledging the special guests first and then the crowd, which has quickly swollen and now fills about two thirds of the stadium. There might be 5,000 – 8,000 people. The matador’s costume is hugely extravagant, as the tradition insists, and contrasts sharply against the sand coloured arena floor and stone stadium walls. It’s pure theatre. The crowd roars approval just as they might when a footy team bursts through a banner. The matador’s movements are all well choreographed and stage managed, but entertaining nonetheless.

The bull enters the arena somewhat confused about the whole thing. Initially it trots around looking for an exit, gradually getting more and more agitated at the crowd noise, until it eventually charges at the teasing matador. With a flash of the cape and a deft side step that Peter Daicos would have been proud to own, the matador shows his agility and speed and has the bull charging at fresh air over and over.   Up until this point it’s pretty harmless fun. Then the matador leaves.

In his place come two picadors who gallop around the arena on horseback, cajoling, mocking and eventually lancing the bull in the muscles around its shoulder with sharp sticks. The sticks remain in the bull’s shoulders like pins in a voodoo doll.  This weakens the bull’s neck and causes the first spilling of blood onto the beautifully manicured ground. The crowd cheers again. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable.

The picadors leave and are replaced by banderillos, whose job it is to stab the poor beast with more sharp barbed sticks in the shoulders. With weakened neck muscles the bull begins to lower its head more and more with each charge, effectively taking the horns out of harms way for the matador. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The matador re-enters, the crowd applauds; the bull looks knackered.  The beast is like the American tourist; completely flummoxed and beaten, but instinct drives it on. As blood rolls down its shoulders it charges again and again in the vain hope of getting the upper hand, each charge more pathetic than the last.

Someone needs to rescue this animal. I want to call a time out, get the bull aside and give it a good old fashioned Teddy Whitten inspiring speech. I want it to lift, to toss the matador over the fence. I want to see the underdog get up. But its situation is hopeless.

After more theatre and prancing the matador has demonstrated his dominance, he takes out his estoque (a sharp curved sword) and approaches the bull.

I can hardly watch the last stand. The curved sword is held over its head, the bull looks up at the matador, such as it can look up after having five or six lances stabbed into its shoulders. The matador’s strutting is now part self-worship and part acknowledgement of the bull’s bravery. The bull has blood flowing from its shoulders and mouth, and its tongue is hanging out like a tea towel drying on the clothes line. It awaits its fate.

The sword is plunged between its shoulder blades and into its heart. It drops like a puppet with cut strings.   

At the end of the afternoon its matadors six, bulls nil.

I wanted to experience a bullfight and I did. It’s brutal and unforgiving; theatre on a grand and grotesque scale.  It offended many of my instincts and ideas about fair play, but its history and traditions are long and rich.

Who am I to judge? I think as I exit the stadium and make for the café.

The afternoon has become evening and the people spill onto the hot streets. As I stroll along I find myself in a large piazza with an enormous fountain in the middle of it. The fountain is decorated with dozens of chubby, rubenesque, stone babies all of which are sprouting torrents of water from their mouths. The fountain is full of splashing, giggling people. I’m hot and this looks like fun so I join in. Within seconds I’m splashing around in the fountain with dozens of complete strangers.

Then I hear whistles blowing again, just as I did earlier in the morning on the Rambla. They are shrill and excited and very close. People leap from the fountain and dash in all directions as uniformed police storm into the piazza looking for targets.

I’m slow to move not immediately understanding what’s going on, until I see a policeman making a beeline for me. My survival instinct kicks in; I bolt.

The policeman approaches me from the northwest corner and he has momentum on his side. I dash for the north east corner and an exit into the narrow streets beyond. He closes in fast. My saturated clothes make running difficult. I contemplate how many years in a Spanish prison I might need to confront for cavorting in a fountain.

I’ve hit full speed when I feel a grab at my shirt; the policeman has me. I’m waiting for him to lance me like the matador did the bull. But because of the angle I’m running on, and because I have built up some momentum of my own, he can’t hold his grip. As I leave him behind I can hear him yelling something excitedly. He’s probably quoting sections from the “Anti Fountain Dancing Act (1987)”.  

Hot, wet and tired I find the café I was at the previous evening and see my new found Irish mates already there. We exchange stories of our day’s adventures and sightseeing. I explain my wet clothes and one of the other blokes explains his torn jeans, and we are initially happy to drink coffee and eat pastries. That is until someone foolishly says:


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Dips,

    Ole! Ole!

    How fast was the policeman to be able to catch a man who finished third in the 1984 Stawell Gift? Did he you offer him a rematch?

    I am teased by my better half because once I struggled to finish off a fish that had a big hook in it. I blamed the blunt pocket knife, of course.

    I had to look away when reading about the fate of the bull.

  2. Peter Flynn says


    I took the soft option and went to the bull games in Arles, France.

    No gore.

    You’ll be pleased to know that the razeteurs (pseudo matadors) come out to the music of the Geelong club song.

  3. Daff – considering he got the jump on me and was coming in low and hard out of the sun, and considering the respective angles were were running on, I reckon I effectively gave him a good 6 – 8 metre head start over 35 or 40 metres and still headed him. Probably one of my finest runs!

  4. Flynnie – I went to Arles as well on my travels, but didn’t go to see anymore bulls.

    Arles is a magnificent place with some beautiful walks around the local countryside as I recall. I hope to go back one day.Perhaps next time I’ll go to the bull games and wear my Geelong jumper.

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