September 1, 2005

Portuguese tackle bulls where blood meets sand

By Ian Simpson

CALDAS DA RAINHA, Portugal (Reuters) - Hey, sports fans,
think you're tough? Then try out a growing Portuguese pastime
that is like playing rugby with a runaway refrigerator.

It's bull tackling, and nearly 1,000 enthusiasts, or
"forcados," from all walks of life love to jump into the ring
for a head-on collision with a maddened bull.

A mixture of sport, spectacle, high testosterone machismo,
male bonding and, some say, art, the rough-and-tumble event is
as unique to Portugal as port wine or codfish ice cream.

"These days you talk about radical sports. But I think this
is a kind of radical art," said Jose Fernando Potier, head of
the National Association of Forcado Groups,

During the event, one forcado jumps on the bull's head as
it charges him. As the bull thunders on, seven other team
members pile onto the animal until it stops moving.

Before charging, the bull is weakened by small javelins
driven into it by a mounted bullfighter and from chasing the
rider around the sandy ring. Its horns are also sawed off and
encased in leather.

Potier, who dislocated his shoulder and broke his nose in
the ring, said catching a bull demanded skill, courage and
savvy teamwork to adapt instantly to a fighting bull's charge.

"We know that it's a very dangerous affair where we run the
risk of death, but that is part of the Latin way of life."


On a recent summer's night in Caldas da Rainha, about 50
miles north of Lisbon, the rose-strewn bull ring gave no hint
that a man-on-bull collision was about to take place.

Music from a brass band laced the cool air. Children, even
nuns, dotted the capacity crowd of 2,500 spectators.

Then Ricardo Vasconcelos, wearing a traditional stocking
cap, short jacket and breeches, started taunting a 1,100-pound
bull into attacking.

"Touro! Touro!" (Bull! Bull!) the slightly built gardener
yelled, pacing forward with his hands at his waist.

Streaming blood, the bull charged straight into
Vasconcelos' gut and slammed him 7 feet into the air.

"When he hit me and I went into the air, I saw my entire
life pass before me in about two seconds," he said later,
smeared from head to waist with bull's blood.

Vasconcelos then locked his arms around the bull's neck,
flinging his torso over its face.

The snorting animal then drove into the lined-up tacklers
in Vasconcelos' team. They piled on one by one, trying to keep
their teammate on the bull's face. One man grabbed the tail.

Within a few seconds, the team had wrestled the bull to a
standstill. Deafening cheers burst from the crowd for the clean
showing where no one was hurt -- except, of course, the bull.


Forcados have ancient roots among bullring handlers and
they take their name from their ancestors' forked poles or

At least five forcados have died in the ring in the last 20
years, including one stabbed through the eye from a barb stuck
in a bull's back, according to Potier.

Forcados say the bull's charge gives them a heady rush of
adrenaline, fear, camaraderie and release from tension.

"We just have to resolve the situation in the best way we
can. It's a complete thrill," said Francisco Calado, head of
the Caldas da Rainha forcados.

Portuguese law bars the killing of a bull in the ring, but
the animals are slaughtered after the show.

For Maria Lopes, of the International Anti-Bullfight
Movement, the talk of art and friendship is a smokescreen for
animal torture in a "retrograde society."

The growth of forcado groups in recent years "only proves
the exhaustion of a part of Portuguese society that does not
have moral or ethical values," she said in a written response
to questions.