Great Sporting Moment No 4: Courses Camarguaises, Arles, France

27 Jul

Nothing can prepare you for the ridiculously dangerous, entertaining and addictive sport of Les Courses Camarguaises. You’ve seen bull fighting as it’s practiced in Spain and some parts of France. The poor, bloody bull is a doomed from the start. Howsoever El Toro performs in the ring, even if matador, picador and horses all escape unscathed, the bull leaves feet first dragged by a team of horses.

We are in Arles in the Camargue in midsummer to see the town and countryside Van Gogh loved to paint with its large, well preserved Roman amphitheatre and forum and flat salt marshes. Instead of trudging through the amphitheatre for five euro we bought tickets to the evening event there, the Courses Camarguaises, for ten euro. We expected a copy paste touristic event. How spectacularly wrong we were.

At 5:30pm seated in strong sun on yellow rough hewn stone benches where in 90AD Romans sat watching chariot races, we drank beer and ate potato crisps dispensed with flair by a vendor who balances on the rails and flings packets at you for which you fling two euro back. Instead of gladiators our show began with a troupe of pastel hued, linen clad and capped women and girls high stepping and dancing in formation. The style was a sprightly melange of Irish and Highland Sottish dance accompanied by two men playing long whistles.

So far so pleasant.

They announced the players for the competition and 20 young and not so young men walked onto the sand of the arena clad in tight white shirts and trousers with their surnames on their backs. The announcer told us tonight’s competition was the ‘Finale de Trophee des Arlesiens’ and that the current leader was Gauthier. This was my first inkling that we were in for a surprise.

The competitors cleared the arena and trumpets announced the bull’s entry. There were to be six bulls with a brief pause after the third. The first, Marlin, was shiny black with wickedly sharp curving horns. We had no idea what was coming next. All the players jumped the railing and swarmed in formation around the bull, some trying to attract him by banging the boards. One by one players ran in a shallow curve towards the bull. They seemed to be trying to touch him. The bull would turn and charge them but they would sprint for the wall, step onto the lowest rail, propel themselves onto the top of the railing then leap over the barrier and hurl themselves at the bars on the inside barrier where they would cling like gymnasts for a moment until sure the bull had turned its attention to someone else. When a bull charged a player all the way to the barrier they’d play a snatch of ‘Carmen’ to acknowledge it.

Confused we turned to our Belgian neighours and asked what on earth was going on. Whilst I’m still ignorant of the finer points, and each region has its own rules, I now understand the basic sport.

As per the diagram below someone, somehow, attaches a rosette, two tassells and several strings to the bull’s horns before they enter the ring. The players hold a metal device called a ‘crochet’ in their dominant hand and use the hooks to remove one of the ‘attributs’/prizes from the horns. Different points are rewarded for each. Local sponsors from the pizza restaurant to the dry cleaner call in sponsorship amounts for each bull which are announced as they come in. The amounts seem pitifully small for the risk the men run. The highest cash prize at our event was 60 euro.

Besides the two groups of players or ‘raseteurs’ (named after the action of cutting the prizes), the right-handed and the left-handed players, who must approach from different sides to prevent the bull goring them, there are several former raseteurs called ‘tourneurs’ identified by red rather than black lettering on their shirts. The tourneurs’ job is to attract and turn the bull to get it into the best position for the players to approach and divert the bull if a man goes down.

After we’d seen three bulls do their fifteen minutes each of charging players and all manner of athletic vaults, leaps and tumbles by the men, we thought we’d seen it all and Stuart wanted to go for dinner. I have a rule never to leave a sporting event until the final point (remember Roland Garros?). So glad I stayed. The bulls had been getting meaner and their horns more frightening. Several players were limping from banging into the wooden barrier. Nothing however prepared us for bull number five, Mafate. We’d seen bulls charge and bang into the inner barrier but never so hard or so high that they went over it. Mafate jumped the barrier after a player not once but three times and raced around the concrete ring until he was coaxed back into the arena. Players and officials and spectators scattered like nine pins. That was one crazy mother of a bull.

Several of the men seemed tired and their white clothes were now brown from the sand and pink from the barrier paint. One player retired after he missed the rail and smashed nose first into the concrete. There was one more bull to go. Vegas was not as crazy as Mafete but still chased a man over the barrier and the points leader, Gauthier, slipped during his run and ended up underneath the bull. A lucky escape. He lost the lead to Faure but lived to run another day.

Players have the speed, reflexes, skills and strength of gymnasts, sprinters and rugby players to succeed in this sport. On top of that they must be incredibly brave to face down the bull time after time to try to secure the prizes. Each player vaulted over the railing at speed at least forty or fifty times and unlike the English football team no one dived and no commentator commented on how tired they must be. No guts no glory.

I also love the bulls getting top billing. In the newspaper report the next day there were detailed reviews of each bull’s performance but only a paragraph about the players. Most bulls live long, healthy lives on special farms in the Camargue while the best go to stud. Bulls that don’t play the game end up on dinner plates. Guess what Stuart had for dinner that night. Yep. Bull’s cheek ravioli.

Note: The current regulatory authority for all the courses is the Federation Francaise de la Course Camarguaise.





























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