Gladiators of the bullring

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Gladiators of the bullring

CHEONGDO, North Gyeongsang
Tethered to a mysterious machine by a rope, four bulls trot in a circle at a farm, letting out thunderous moos from time to time. Watching from behind a wooden fence, a man operates a metal box that appears to be a type of remote control. As he pushes one of the buttons, the machine picks up speed, forcing the bulls to trot even faster.
Another lowing sound echoes back from the small hills surrounding the farm. A grin appears on the man’s face, growing wider every moment. He has just increased the workout for his students.
Lee Gyu-ha is in charge of training 94 bulls ― gladiators being groomed to do battle in Cheongdo’s bullfighting arena, which is scheduled to open early next year. The domed arena will be the country’s first permanent bullfighting facility.
Mr. Lee, the only person in the country who is training bulls in such a large number, is putting his charges through their paces on a unique machine that he just calls “the walking machine.”
“Let’s go boys! Keep moving!” he yells at the animals, determined not to be intimidated by their constant mooing.
Mr. Lee’s workday begins at 9 a.m., when, along with a crew of six, he begins to feed the bulls.
The task takes all morning. It is a big job, as the animals consume four tons of hay and 1,750 kilograms (3,850 pounds) of fodder each week. With that much food being consumed, the cleanup process also is monumental: 564 kilograms of dung are collected every day at the farm.
The afternoon hours are spent building up the bulls’ strength. The animals are tied to the walking machine for about four hours a day or are simply tethered to the fence. And then there is the real training.
Twice a day, following a rotation, bulls are pitted against each other in a small arena at the farm. Each bull’s session lasts no longer than 30 minutes, to prevent injuries. “They could lose a horn or even both of them. That would be the end for a fighting bull,” says Chai Jang-heui, another official overseeing the farm. Mr. Chai explains, however, that if a bull’s horn is just damaged at the tip the animal could return to fight another day.
Mr. Lee acknowledges that there is a disadvantage to training such a large number of animals at once. “We have so many bulls that there is certainly a time limit. We really can’t taylor our training to individual bulls.”
This is an area in which farmers like Cheong Yoon-cheol think they have the upper hand. For 10 years Mr. Cheong has been training bulls on a part-time basis. Five bulls have come and gone, but one thing that has not changed is his training methods.
Whenever Mr. Cheong is preparing for a bullfight he walks the mammal along the roads of Cheongdo. Sometimes he walks through the neighboring short, steep hills. Often he attaches a big truck tire to the bull with a rope and puts his weight on it.
“I hop on it, usually after I have had something to eat,” Mr. Cheong says with a laugh. “My bull stays in shape but my belly grows.”
So, what is the hardest part of the whole process? Mr. Cheong answers without hesitation: “retirement.”
For any cow or bull, retirement means a trip to the butcher. Although he has sent off five bulls, Mr. Cheong has never sold them directly to the slaughterhouse. “It would be very hard for me,” he says.
Unmuntwo, the 5-year-old bull he is training, is still young considering that bulls are usually considered in their prime when they are six or seven.
“Well, with my boy we’ve got some good years left. Until then, we are going to kick some serious butt,” he chuckles. Twice, the bull has come close to winning it all, Mr. Cheong says. Victory should come in the next two years, or never.
Bullfighting appears to have a long tradition in this country. According to Lee Seung-ja, who works at the Cheongdo District Office, there are no official records of when and how bullfighting began on the peninsula, but some speculate that it started during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). In an agriculture-based society, bullfighting may have naturally emerged as a diversion when harvesting season had ended.
Bullfighting was banned under Japanese colonial rule out of concern that it might provide a focal point for resistance to the occupation. After Korea’s liberation, small local bullfighting events were held starting in the mid-1970s, but it is only since 1990 that bullfighting contests have entered the national consciousness.
Until now, about nine nationwide bullfighting events have been scattered throughout the year, with most being held in the spring or fall, and taking place in such areas as Cheongdo, Jinju and Gimhae. Thanks to the new stadium, however, a bullfighting event is scheduled for every weekend, each consisting of eight to 13 fights.
With a population of about 50,000, and with 21 percent of that total being over 65 years of age, Cheongdo may not appear to be a lively spot. There is no movie theater, no bowling alley. The buses that shuttle between Cheongdo and Daegu are never full. Yet this place, where gateball tournaments are quite popular, is dreaming of becoming Korea’s bullfighting hub.
An estimated 700,000 people made the trip to attend Cheongdo’s bullfighting festival in March. Whether the town’s plans for a weekly bullfighting event will be commercially successful is still unclear, but the residents of Cheongdo seem to care little.
Lee Seung-pyo, 56, who has been attending bullfights for nine years and lives 30 minutes outside of town, can’t wait for the arena to open. “This is a small place. Bullfighting is like a picnic for the whole town. We all get together, watch a game and just talk.”
In Cheongdo, even the younger generation, which usually is more attuned to the Internet and video games, has a fondness for bullfighting. “You know, I was really scared at first but now it’s so fun to watch,” says 13-year-old Ye Ji-yong. “I like Tank.”
Tank is a 7-year-old bull weighing close to 800 kilograms that has won a couple of tournaments.
Who knows? Soon Tank might become known outside Cheongdo.


by Brian Lee
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