Pok Ta Pok, An Ancient but Re-emerging Sport in Belize
Whenever you hear about sports in Belize, you think about football, basketball, and volleyball. You even hear about cricket, but it’s a rare occasion when you hear about Pok-Ta-Pok. It might be an ancient Mayan ball game, but Pok-Ta-Pok is being played today by the ‘Black Jaguars’ of Yo Creek Village. The Pok Ta Pok ball game is played with the hips between warring groups to settle disputes. Today, the men of Ek' Balam play it as a sport. ‘Ek Balam’ first made headlines three years ago when the members competed in the regional Mundo Maya Pok-Ta-Pok tournament in Mexico. The players came close to defeating the champions that year. Fast forward two years later, after much training and dedication, Ek' Balam became the champions of Pok-Ta-Pok in the region. The team will defend its title at the 2019 championship and for them to be successful, the men have begun training.
Pok Ta Pok, an Ancient but Re-emerging Sport in Belize
Whenever you hear about sports in Belize, you think about football, basketball, and volleyball. You even hear about cricket, but it’s a rare occasion when you hear about Pok-Ta-Pok. It might be an ancient Mayan ball game, but Pok-Ta-Pok is being played today by the ‘Black Jaguars’ of Yo Creek Village. The Pok Ta Pok ball game is played with the hips between warring groups to settle disputes. Today, the men of EkBalam play it as a sport. ‘EkBalam’ first made headlines three years ago when the members competed in the regional Mundo Maya Pok-Ta-Pok tournament in Mexico. The players came close to defeating the champions that year. Fast forward two years later, after much training and dedication, EkBalam became the champions of Pok-Ta-Pok in the region. The team will defend its title at the 2019 championship and for them to be successful, the men have begun training. News Five’s Hipolito Novelo reports.
Hipolito Novelo, Reporting
More than a thousand years ago, in the Ancient Mayan Civilization…Across the Meso-American region…There was a ball game like no other. Thought to be only a part of history, this ancient Mayan ball game lives on in Belize through the young men of Ek’ Balam or ‘Black Jaguars’ in Yo Creek Village; where the past meets the present.
Felicita Cantun, Founder, Ek’ Balam
“It’s a game played by our ancestors long, long ago; before 1492. We have proof of it because we have the ball courts in Lamanai, Xunantunich, CahalPech-different Mayan sites-we have the ball court where this game was played by my ancestors; the Mayas.”
Equipped with only a piece of traditional clothing around their waist, their determination to best their opponents, and the knowledge of the game these warriors, in ancient times, are cleansed by a Mayan priest who also honors, the four corners, the heavens, the gods and Mother Nature. In the time of ancient Mayan centers like Pacbitun and Xunantunich, Pok-Ta-Pok was as a ball game used to settle disputes among warring groups-resulting in certain death.
“Our ancestors used to play this game to solve different issues, to offer it to the gods. Well now we play it as a sport.”
“Back then it was whoever loses dies.”
“Some history books say that it is the captain of the winning team. Others say it’s the losing team but probably we believe that it is the captain of the winning team. And you would say that no one would want to play this game or no one would want to win because they would be offered as a sacrifice. At that time it was an honor to be offered as a sacrifice to the gods.”
Fortunately for these players changing times came with changing practices and beliefs. The most they would suffer would be a bruise ego if they lose, or bruises to the abdomen or even broken ribs if they miss the ball with their hips. Weighing almost eight pounds, the ball is made of pure rubber.
Melanio Novelo Sr., Coach, Ek’ Balam
“It is very challenging to work with this a ball because if this hits your ribs, it can damage your ribs and other organs inside. So we try to keep it in the hips area. So that’s one of the biggest challenges of this game. You have to be in good condition to go down and come up quickly to defend your side of the court.”
The players of each team are allowed to hit the ball with their hip once, hoping their opponents commit a fault in order to gain points.
Melanio Novelo Sr.
“The rules of the games are that you can only hit the ball with your hips. If you touch it with any other parts of the body, you lose points and the points are given to the next team. In those times the Mayas use to subtract and add points according to the record. If the ball touches your hand, then you lose one point which is given to the next team. If the ball touches your leg then you lose two points. It is given to the next teams. If you touch the ball with your buttocks on the ground then that is the worse fault you can make. You lose three pints which are given to the next team. Also you make point by passing the ball across the ball court of the next then you get g five points and that is who we can add the points and at the end of the game you know who is the winner.”
Each team has four players. The game is played in two rounds of twenty minutes each. At the end of the game, the winner is announced and no one dies. Usually after matches, the players are also tasked in getting the ball through the hoop using their hips only.
Didier Novelo is the captain of Ek’ Balam as signified by the markings on his face.
Didier Novelo, Captain, Ek’ Balam
“Timing is very essential because sometimes if you do not time the ball properly it can hit you very bad. It can hit your ribs, legs and it is very painful. So I guess timing is one of the most difficult things.”
“Before any match, what do you tell yourself? How do you become mentally prepared?”
“I say, I want to be the best. I trained so hard for this. We’ve been though a lot of struggles as a team and I tried very hard for this and I do not want to end up like a loser so I try to give my best at any times.”
For Ek’ Balam, their journey began three years ago. In 2015 that journey led them to Chichen Itza, Mexico, to compete in the first of its kind Mundo Maya Pok-Ta-Pok Competition. With only two months of training, the group placed third. Ek’ Balam later travelled to Teotihuacan, Mexico where they bested the home team. In 2017, Ek’ Balam defeated all the Mundo Maya teams in the second Annual Pok-ta-pok World Cup Tournament in Guatemala.
“It was very challenging because at the time we only had I think it was six players and one of them got hurt. We stayed with only five players; four of them on the field and one of them to change. That was very difficult for use because the other teams had quite an amount of players and they had two teams. Belize had one team.”
Melanio Novelo Sr.
“It’s a very physical game. You have to keep in good conditions. This is a game where it is important to keep your body clean also.
“Some people thought I was crazy but then crazy people do interesting things. Whenever you have a passion for something, when you really want something the universe will conspire with you to make it happen. The seed has been planted; it is growing, it’s flowering. In Yo Creek we have two teams and I am so proud of the two teams. So right now Ek’ Balam is the champions of the Mundo Maya Pok Ta Pok”.
Ek’ Balam will defend its title at the third annual Pok-Ta-Pok World Cup in El Salvador in 2019. Reporting for News Five, I am Hipolito Novelo.