BARCELONA — “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Ernest Hemingway’s aphorism captured something potent in Spain’s cultural history — the matador and the bull, facing each other for generations in a display of artistry in the face of mortal danger.
To aficionados, it’s a glorious mastery of grace and cunning. To critics, it’s a gruesome blood sport.
Hemingway was one of bullfighting’s biggest fans, but in “Death in the Afternoon,” even he acknowledged that bullfighting wasn’t an equal contest between man and bull. “There is danger for the man,” he wrote, “but certain death for the bull.”
Now, Spain’s best-known custom is under attack as never before from animal rights activists.
For years, Spain’s Association for the Defense of the Rights of Animals has fought to ban bullfighting under the banner “Culture Without Cruelty.” Seven years ago, the city council of Barcelona, capital of the autonomous Catalonian region, voted to condemn the sport. Today, only one bullring remains in the city.
“Torture is not culture,” protesters shout every July at the festival of San Fermín, where the famous running of the bulls heralds battles in the bullring at Pamplona, the third-largest in the world.
Botching the moment of truth?
Recent polls indicate that nearly three-quarters of the people oppose bullfighting in Catalonia. Research shows that some of the opposition in the region, where separatist sentiment is popular, arises from the sport’s association with the Spanish nation and its declaration by the late dictator Francisco Franco as the national sport.
But most of it comes from critics who condemn the pain and suffering of the bulls.
A master bullfighter, or matador, is expected to dispatch the bull by severing its aorta with a single stroke of his sword, or estoque, between the shoulder blades. That is when he is at greatest risk, stepping directly into the bull’s path to strike his blow between the beast’s razor-sharp horns. Aficionados — the word derives from the Spanish for a devotee of bullfighting — describe this sequence, the estocada, as the “moment of truth.”
Not every bullfighter is a matador, however, and sometimes even matadors fail to get it right at the first try. Sometimes, the bull survives the estocada — sometimes, he will even survive the second attempt at a kill, when the bullfighter will try to sever his spinal cord with a thrust behind the head.
“It’s a violent spectacle,” said Patricia Goma, a member of the Catalonian parliament. “The bulls don’t always die with the first blow ... so you can imagine the blood.”
Cruel, or expression of an essential nature?
The anti-cruelty sentiment has long bolstered opposition to bullfighting in the United States, where it is illegal. But in Spain, it remains a transfixing dance of reverence and respect.
Even in Barcelona, where 20,000 aficionados filled the Monumental arena last month, some paying scalpers as much as $5,300 for a ticket, to witness the triumphant return of Jose Tomas to the ring after five years in retirement.
Tomas was accorded the profession’s highest honor, being carried out of the ring on the shoulders of the aficionados. So was another bullfighter on the same bill, Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez.
“I don’t think there is anyone that loves the bull more than the bullfighters,” said Rivera, who is following in the footsteps of his father, who was gored to death in the ring.
But there is no getting around the fact that the bullfighter walks out of the ring alive, while the bull is almost always carted out dead. It is a reality that breeders like Andres Moreno, a former matador himself, say is inseparable from the sport’s heritage.
“The fiery character of the bull goes hand in hand with the Spanish temperament,” Moreno said. “It’s hard to see an animal die in public, but it’s the nature of bullfighting.”
Dawna Friesen is a correspondent for NBC News. Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.