Today we visited a village in the Orange Walk district that is attempting to revive a centuries-old game, and a dying Mayan tradition. It is an ancient sport called POK-TA-POK played with a 6 to 7 pound rubber ball. The hard part is players can only use their forearms and thighs to pass and hit the ball - into hoops. It’s tougher than basketball or football - and we’ll bet that neither LeBron James nor Neymar would have any success at it.
And that’s what makes the team from Yo Creek named "Ek Balam”, or Black Jaguars so special. Today at their training grounds, they told us more about the sport and their efforts to revive this dying tradition.
Before there was football, before there was basketball, one ball game dominated this part of the western hemisphere. It is an ancient sport intertwined with myth, religion, and war. It is the ancient Mayan ball game called Pok-Ta-Pok and it was played in Belize, over a thousand years ago.
Evidence of this can be seen at several Mayan archaeological sites spread across Belize.
Today it is played by a group of young men from the village of Yo Creek, in the Orange Walk District. It almost looks like a combination of tennis and volleyball, only it is played with the hips. Simple enough, but it is intense. And dangerous if not executed properly.
And back in the days of the ancient Mayan civilization, it was also deadly
Felicita Cantun - Spokesperson, Poktapok Belize "It was said that remember the losers were beheaded so that is why they believe that the team who loses, the captain of the team who loses are beheaded. Luckily we don't do that now a days."
Today, it's different for obvious reasons but the essence of the game remains the same.
Menalio Novelo - Co-manager/coach, Ek Balam "If you touch the ball with your hand or with your back, with your stomach, one point is taken from you and given to the other team - add and subtract. The ball touch your leg, its 2 points they take away from you and it’s given to the next team and if you press the ball with your butt on the ground and it stays there, then you lose 3 points and its given to the next team. It's an accumulation addition and subtraction of points, so you have to take a record of how many points you're adding and subtracting. At the end, they make the differences and they check it and they add it. Also you can score 5 points if you pass the ball to the back court of the other team, you get 5 points it's called a raya."
And for the youths, this was a whole new experience for them.
Didier Novelo - Captain, Ek Balam "I wasn't quite sure, I didn't want because the whole reason I have to take off my pants and my shirt and everything but after I started getting good at it is when I started to love it."
Emmanuel Pech "How different is it from all the other sports you've plated here in Belize?"
Didier Novelo "Well I guess because you have to play it with your hips and at first I was very confused how I could lift the ball with my hips and things like that, so that's very different."
Emmanuel Pech "Was it strange, was it weird using your hips?"
Didier Novelo "Yes definitely it was, I would say also because it hurts a lot. When you first start, it hurts a lot."
But all those painstaking practice sessions paid out last year when they brought home the gold from the 2nd biennial world cup pok ta pok tournament.
Felicita Cantun "We took part in the second tournament in Guatemala and incredible, the boys put Belize on the map. They represented Belize so excellent that we beat all the countries in the mundo maya."
Didier Novelo "Other countries they took 2 teams but ours was only one team that we took and we had this great motivation that we wanted to come out on top especially because it was in Guatemala."
Emmanuel Pech "So you guys made sure to put Belize on the map."
Didier Novelo "Yes exactly."
Emmanuel Pech "Who was your biggest competitor?"
Didier Novelo "I would say Guatemala had a great team."
And what would be the sport without the cultural aspect of it? Novelo told us how he got more acquainted with his own culture through the sport.
Didier Novelo "First I heard of it when we use to go to school trips to archaeological sites, I heard about it but I wasn't quite - I didn't have any idea how to play the game."
Emmanuel Pech "How does it change your mentality being a part of the team?"
Didier Novelo "Well I guess it gives a whole new value to the culture because now I know how they use to play many years ago and I'm glad that I know how to play."
Only five countries, what they call the mundo maya, participate in this tournament, but according to the organizers, they hope to expand it to the Caribbean region, as well as make it more popular in Belize.
Currently there are only three Pok-Ta-Pok in Belize, two of them from Yo Creek and another from Xiabe in Corozal. Later this week, one of the veteran teams of Yo Creek will participate in a pok-ta-pok tournament in Merida, Mexico.