No death in the afternoon at S.Korea bullfight

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Two bulls enter the oval arena, bellowing loudly, and exchange momentary glares. Then they clash head to head - and there's not a matador in sight.

Centuries after the tradition began, Korean bullfighting still draws frenzied crowds who don't seem to miss the bloodshed of the Spanish version.

"The bulls fight each other. Whereas the bullfighter is always the winner in the Spanish version, our winner is undisclosed until the end," Cheongdo county mayor Lee Joong-Geun told AFP this week as the annual bullfighting festival began.

"It is a fair and clean sport. Bullfighting is part of Koreans' life, as it was mine when I was young and owned a bull."

Every March, just before the farming season begins, bull owners flock to the competition at Cheongdo 265 kilometres (164 miles) southeast of Seoul.

Taking part this year were 132 bulls from six different classes that made it to the quarter-finals in other competitions, and some 10,000 spectators packed the stadium for the opening day Wednesday.

"I came all the way from Daegu. We are excited and my sons have even been practising the bullfight at home all week long," said Elizabeth Kim, 33, an American from Pittsburgh who married a Korean.

The contest begins when two owners dressed in traditional red and blue lead their bulls into the centre of the ring.

When the referee blows his whistle, owners use a rope attached to a nose ring to get their beasts - weighing around three-quarters of a tonne - to clash head to head. They lock horns and attempt to push each other backwards.

There is no time limit for each bout.

"The focus is not on the bulls getting hurt. It is fun if you focus on the tactics, the energy and the speed," said Choi Kyoung-Hee, 40, a festival volunteer.

When one bull is exhausted, it backs off and pulls its horns away. The winner roams the arena, seemingly savouring the victory, while the loser slowly walks out.

Bulls are classified into six weight categories from 821 kilograms (1,810 pounds) or more down to 600-625 kilograms.

An Ul class bull - above 660 kilograms - named Haebyung (Marine) was still feisty, steaming from its nostrils when it returned to the barn after defeating Papillon, which had been this year's favourite for the championship.

"When I saw our opponent, I never thought Haebyung would win because he is only four years old, but he went through it so well and I am just glad," said owner Ha Suk-Goo, 56.

The winner of the five-day festival which ends Sunday collects six million won (5,290 dollars), and the runner-up five million.

The fighting bulls are not a special breed. Experts identify young beasts with potential - usually those with short front legs, a thick neck and small eyes.

Owners then train and feed them special delicacies such as mudfish to build up their stamina. Most fighting bulls reach their peak at age six or seven, but there are exceptions.

Once they are too old to fight, they either return to the farm or are put down if too damaged by their bouts - but never butchered for beef. Organisers say it is rare for a bull to suffer serious injuries.

Some spectators on Wednesday were surreptitiously gambling on the bouts despite restrictions on gaming in Korea.

"We are planning to make bullfight a gambling sport to which people can come every weekend, but there are problems due to conflicts within the organisation," festival organiser Park Chung-Bae told AFP.

Whether or not gambling is eventually allowed, mayor Lee Joong-Geun thinks spectators can take something away from the sport.

"Once the bull surrenders, no owner will push it to the limit and will accept the result," he said. "Such a spirit is definitely something for us to learn."