Seven Dead in Spanish Bull Runs: time running out for the spectacle of Iberia?

Seven people have been gored to death in Spain over the past month during popular bull-running festivals. The news comes just a few days after renowned matador Francisco Rivera Ordonez was left with severe injuries after being savagely attacked during a corrida in Huesca.

Spectacles involving the taunting and killing of bulls were common in Ancient Crete, Rome and Thessaly over a millennium ago and have remained popular – not to mention legal – in Spain, Portugal and several Latin American countries. That said, bullfighting and bull-running do not receive the nationwide approval they once did in Spain, with both the Canary Islands and Catalonia having outlawed the corrida.

Bullfighting in Spanish provinces in the 19th century
Bullfighting in Spanish provinces in the 19th century


Bullfighting in Spain today
Bullfighting in Spain today

Arguments over animal cruelty compete with narratives trumpeting the cultural significance of bull-baiting in all its forms although, in truth,  the spectacle is unlikely to disappear in its practicing countries anytime soon. Indeed, the running of the bulls in Pamplona remains an important date in the Spanish calendar. Originating in the 13th century – when it coincided with a series of bullfighting ‘fiestas’ – the Pamplona run attracts tourists from around the world and has been broadcast on Spanish national television for three decades. Injuries to participants is a yearly occurrence, although only 15 deaths have been recorded since 1910.

This latest spate of deaths in other bull-runs across the country is likely to provide momentum to activists seeking to end the practice, although it will take a very brave government to ban the sport, which remains an important economic (as well as cultural) contributor to Spain.

The running of the bulls in Pamplona
The running of the bulls in Pamplona

Bullfighting too is unlikely to die out quickly despite a decrease in participation and popularity. An age-old tradition, it follows three carefully-managed stages:

  1. A banderillero (assistant) performs some preliminary manoeuvres to allow the matador to assess the bull’s behaviour.
  2. The matador commences his capework, drawing the bull as close to him as possible whilst avoiding being gored.
  3. Picadors enter on horseback and jab the bull in the neck to weaken its muscles, allowing the matador to swoop in and slay the beast with his sword, usually to a rapturous reception from the baying crowd.

For people in many countries where bullfighting is not a national pastime this ‘process’ seems rather barbaric. However, the sport has become so ingrained in Spanish and, to a slightly lesser extent, Latin American culture that any criticism of it is almost deemed a racist assault. It is for this reason in particular – nationalism – that bullfighting and bull-running are likely to persist in their current forms for many years to come.

Whether this a triumph for national solidarity or a gross abuse of animal rights – not to mention the unnecessary risk placed on civilians – will probably depend on your country of origin.

Sevilla circa 1850. The primeval spectacle of man vs beast continues to stir passions in the Spanish heartland
Sevilla circa 1850. The primeval spectacle of man vs beast continues to stir passions in the Spanish heartland

Where the blood sports of the West have generally been abandoned, confined to a handful of illegal closed door ceremonies, the ‘fine art’ of the corrida remains defiant, its proponents heroes of the common man, vaunted as modern colossuses.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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