Unique Sports Advent Calendar – December 13: Ulama

Someone on an IRC chat has been bugging me for the last week or so to write something about this. I’m finally honouring their request and writing about ulama.


Ulama comes from the word ōllamaliztli, a word in the Nahautl language used by the Aztecs. That word is a combination of ōllamas (playing a game with a ball) and ōllei (rubber). Ōllamaliztli was the Aztec word for the Mesoamerican ballgame which ulama is based on.

The oldest ballcourt found was in Paso de la Amada, and has been dated to approximately 1400 BCE. The earliest known rubber balls played with this were in the sacrificial bog at El Manatí, and a dated a century or so earlier.

Many similar versions of this game were played throughout Mesoamerica all the way up to the Spanish conquest, and some of the Spanish came into contact with it:

In the sixteenth-century Aztec ballgame that the Spaniards witnessed, points were lost by a player who let the ball bounce more than twice before returning it to the other team, who let the ball go outside the boundaries of the court, or who tried and failed to pass the ball through one of the stone rings placed on each wall along the center line. According to 16th century Aztec chronicler Motolinia, points were gained if the ball hit the opposite end wall, while the decisive victory was reserved for the team that put the ball through a ring. However, placing the ball through the ring was a rare event—the rings at Chichen Itza, for example, were set 6 meters off the playing field—and most games were likely won on points.


Because the game had religious aspects, Spanish Catholics began to supress the game, but it survived in less Spaniard-heavy areas such as Sinaloa, where it is still played today.

How to Play

Games of ulama are played on a tastei, a small, temporary court marked by chalk, and divided into opposing sides by one line.

There are three main variants today, but ulama de cadera (hip ulama) is the main form. A team consists of five players, wearing loincloths and hip protectors, because the ball is heavy (about seven pounds) and you’re hitting the ball with your hip!

There are several ways to score:

  • If your opponent hits the ball out of turn.
  • If your opponent misses the ball.
  • If your opponent lets the ball go out of bounds.
  • If your opponent touches the ball with something other than their hip.
  • If your opponent touches a teammate.
  • If your opponent lets the ball stop moving before it reaches the centre line.

The first team to score eight points wins, but if the score is the same, say 6-6, it goes back to 0-0. Most games are usually capped at two hours.

There are no ulama world championships, and it is not played in Australia.


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