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Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Playing with bulls


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

T he "course Camarguese," held in local village bull rings throughout the spring and summer, are events unlikely to upset even animal-rights groups.

Unlike the Spanish bullfight, or the brand of "mise a mort" practiced not far away in the arenas of Ni^mes and Arles, the only blood that is ever spilled in the rings of the Camargue, and then only rarely, is that of the men who confront the bull.

In a course, six white-clad men, fighters known as "razeteurs," enter the ring after the bull has stomped in. The aim of the game, which are tests of strength and agility, is for a player to remove, in one lightning pass, a ribbon or cockade from the deadly horns of the animal and to then make a swift dash for the red barriers. He must leap over these and then propel himself, literally through the air, to an inner banister that he clings to before releasing himself and climbing back into the ring.

The removal of the ribbons and pompoms is also a test for the bull. The one that resists to the end, winning the contest, will have a higher value placed on it should the owner ever decide to sell at auction.

The rules of the game, of course, do not always apply. An unexpected turn of events may occur, such as when a particularly nettled bull lowers its horns and begins to demolish parts of the barriers, sending the red planks that flank the arena into the air.

In the Spanish version, with its giant Iberian bulls, death hangs over the arenas from the very outset. The smell of death is on the breath of the bull, something a Spanish audience intuitively senses, and the matador may easily find that he takes his own last breath in the ring.

The essential difference with a Camargue bullfight is that it is a sport, not a ritual, and its smaller, more nimble bulls are released back into their fields after the event. The course Camarguese, as one writer put it, "breathes all the poetry and energy of youth, springing as it does directly from the land."



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