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On Second Thought

Stopping the fight in Barcelona

Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas performs a pass during the last bullfight at Monumental bullring in central Barcelona on Sept. 25. (Reuters) Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas performs a pass during the last bullfight at Monumental bullring in central Barcelona on Sept. 25.
October 2, 2011

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Barcelona officially got out of the bullfighting business last Sunday night. The last stroke, the evening's final slaying of a bull by matador Serafin Marin, was delivered at La Monumental, the last of the great Catalan city's bullfighting rings, a circular arena with brick facade that held its first corrida in 1914.

Catalonia's Parliament, under pressure from animal rights groups, ruled in July 2010 that the Spanish region's bullfighting days had to end. Some say it's because the animal activists hectored the government into it.

Others believe it's because Catalonia is fiercely independent and its Parliament was actually more interested in distancing itself from all things Spanish as a show of separatism.

There are 17 regions in Spain and 15 still allow, if not actively promote or subsidize, bullfighting. The Canary Islands, where the sport was never too popular, dropped the bulls in 1991.

"For a city like Barcelona to close this arena," mused one fan named Cristobal, who withheld his family name when interviewed by a wire service reporter, "is like throwing a Picasso painting into the garbage."

For almost anyone in North America, especially those who have never been to a bullfight or witnessed the slaughter of any animal for public spectacle, it's fairly easy to understand what is objectionable, if not horrifying, about the sport.

There are plenty of pictures online of Sunday's final bullfight. If you go there, be warned: The blood oozing from the lanced bulls can be tough on the eyes and stomach. The one that really got me showed one of the bulls chained to two giant workhorses, its mutilated 1,000-pound carcass being dragged from the arena.

That said, one man's bloodbath is another culture's sporting pleasure, its heritage, its art form. Bullfighting has existed in many parts of the world for centuries. Some reports have the sport's origins in Catalonia going back to the 16th century, while others note that Spanish bullfighting traced back to 2,000 years B.C. Either way, that's a lot of bull.

Marin, the last man to thrust a killing sword in Barcelona, was one of three matadors Sunday who slew a total of six bulls. The others were Jose Tomas, 36, considered perhaps the country's top bullfighter, along with Juan Mora, 36. Since the 28-year-old Marin is a Catalan homeboy, he was appointed the closer, bestowed the honor to slay the last bull.

When the night wrapped up, some in the sellout crowd of 20,000 jumped into the ring to grab fistfuls of sand as precious mementos, while others hoisted Marin, Tomas, and Mora on their shoulders and carried them joyously onto the streets. It was a happening - a "last of" to remember, and for some to lament.

"They take away all your past," bemoaned Marin, "and part of your future."

All the blood, gore, brutality, and animal suffering aside for a moment, I have to admit I'm torn over the notion of bullfighting in general and the end of its days in Barcelona, a city I first visited when I covered the 1992 Summer Olympics and liked so much that I returned as a tourist the following summer.

Wonderful people, beautiful city, and a pure joy to sit along Las Ramblas on a warm summer's eve with a bottle of red wine and all night to savor it. The whole pace and feel of the place left me envious, thinking that this was one place on earth where they had it right, and if only Boston could replicate Las Ramblas.

That splendid memory returned Sunday as I thought of such a bloody, horrific sport in such a beautiful place. While 180,000 Catalans may have signed the petition that Parliament cited as part of its basis to kill the sport, others clearly liked it and still support it. In fact, one pro-bullfighting group, Mesa del Toro, is attempting to get a half-million signatures on a petition for the sport to be accorded cultural heritage status throughout Spain. If successful, maybe the bulls will come back to La Monumental.

"Banning bullfighting in Catalonia," declared Carlos Nunez, president of Mesa del Toro, "is nothing more than an attack on liberty."

OK, so maybe there's a little bull and bluster in what Nunez has to say, but no one can deny that setting free the bulls is a seismic cultural change for both the city and the region. That's where I struggle on this one, no doubt in part because we don't have anything that compares to it in our sporting culture.

Not even the death of baseball, our nation's oldest sport and our most treasured one here in Boston, would match up to a timeline that traces back to somewhere between the 16th century A.D. and 2,000 B.C. In Europe's eyes, we weren't even an exotic fishing resort in the 1500s. And we're going to sit here on this side of the Atlantic and point fingers at what they consider sport?

As I say, it's not my preferred cup of blood. But I didn't grow up with it, hear my grandfather, father, and uncles trade stories about the bravest matadors, the fiercest bulls, the closest scrapes, and the horrifying gorings by the toreros.

It's not the only sport they talk about over there, of course. Soccer is huge in Barcelona. And because they are in Catalonia, they have the perpetual sport of politics, usually a view opposite Madrid's, to sustain their sporting pleasure (Quebec has this, plus hockey).

Absent the potential of death centered in the game, a bullfighting fan might look at the NFL or NHL the way most of us look at candlepin bowling, miniature golf, bumper boats, and decaf cappuccino. Again, I just think it's how you're raised, and if that happened to be near a bull ring, it has been OK for a very long time.

With bullfighting out of Barcelona, there's one big winner, the bull, who is now spared the matador's killing sword and a life ending on an arena's sandy floor with thousands cheering on the guy with the natty, filigreed costume and colorful cape.

Otherwise, the matadors lose, the fans lose, and most of all, a culture gets altered, a piece of it rendered silent, removed. And while many deem that a wonderful triumph for the bulls and animal rights supporters, it is also yet another step toward a homogenized world.

Granted, bullfighting has never been pretty. Maybe it wasn't meant for kids (RTVE, the state-controlled broadcaster, recently stopped showing it for that reason). By 21st century sensibilities, it was probably a century or two past its prime. But it was also undeniably a unique, cherished part of that city for centuries, embedded in its culture, its people, its calendar, its life.

When something like that comes to an end, even if the reasons are more good than bad, what people have been asked to forget is worth remembering.

Kevin Paul Dupont's "On Second Thought" appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont9@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.