A deadly dance: One of the matadors in action at the Plaza del Toros, Madrid.       Pictures: Elizabeth Dale

After years of hiding in plain sight, bullfighting has found its way into the international press once more. However it has hit the headings not because of its blatant cruelty to animals but because of the dramatic deaths of two Spanish matadors in less than a year. Victor Barrio, 29, died last July, his last moments broadcast live on national television, while Ivan Fandino’s death after he was gored in a French bull ring came just days after my own visit to Madrid this summer.

I was not unprepared. I knew what I was letting myself in for. I had researched the traditions and heard the rumours of ill treatment and cruelty. But practically everything that I had read gave the impression that this was an increasingly unpopular event (I hesitate to say sport), morally adrift from the majority of Spaniards. I decided that I would go and see it before it disappeared into history.

So I am genuinely taken aback when I emerge from the Ventas Metro station to find a sea of people making their way to the Plaza del Toros. The heaving crowd pouring through the enormous, Moorish-style gateways is loud, jovial and in the mood for a party, it seems. As I enter the stadium, pulled along by the enormous crowd, I can see that the stands are already a sea of people. The Plaza del Toros can hold 23,000 spectators and it looks almost full. I am told that more than 80 per cent of the seats are held by season ticket holders. It appears that bull fighting is very far from a dying tradition.

Support act: One of the banderilleros observes from the edge of the ring

The crowd ripples with excitement, I see flashes of colour as thousands of painted fans flit back and forth in the unbearable heat of a Spanish summer afternoon. There is a rumble of drums and a high pitched blare of trumpets. The noise from the crowd builds as the picadors on horseback, the spear-carrying banderilleros and the heroic matadors themselves parade around the sandy ring waving their hats in salute.

Moments later the first bull bursts through the wooden doors, dust flying. I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and not just because of the oppressive heat. Sure I have sweat running down the backs of my legs and the sides of my face but I can feel a strange tension too. I am in the midst of a kind of rough gladiatorial spirit that I don’t quite understand.

As I watch the bull being taunted, panting in the heat, its tongue lolling from its mouth, I remind myself as I have done many times before that in order to understand something I need to experience it first. That is how I have found myself at sex shows in Amsterdam, eating dog in Laos and firing a gun off a roof in Lebanon with a member of Hezbollah. This is another cultural curiosity I have vowed to see, even if it is just once.

The image of the bull permeates Spanish society. It is everywhere, in advertising, bumper stickers, on flags and in art. When Pablo Picasso depicted the tragedy of war in his painting Guernica, now hanging in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, he chose a wild-eyed bull with nostrils flared to represent the anguish of Spain. Inside the capital’s National Archaeological Museum, the image of the toro repeatedly transcends the centuries. There are giant bronze bulls’ heads from a 3rd century temple, a limestone reclining bull from a 5th century tomb, brass bulls’ heads decorate the handles of a medieval chest and a bullfight appears in a Roman mosaic. Despite this long relationship the bullfighting we recognise today is a relatively modern invention, appearing in Spain at the end of the 18th century. But it is clear that the cult of the bull runs very deep and shows no sign of fading.

As each dead bull is dragged away, a man with a large board on a pole does a circuit of the stadium. The white sign tells the audience the next bull’s name, age and weight. I listen to the muttered approval as the crowd size up the bull, its fierceness and breeding.

I would be lying if I said I don’t at first enjoy the spectacle, if I didn’t admit I am curious and for a moment caught up in the crowd’s excitement. The matadors are great performers; swooping, dancing flashes of primary colour in the sun-bleached arena. They prance, they pose. They arch their backs at exaggerated angles, chests out, buttocks clenched as they dance with a wild beast. Or at least this is the image they work hard to portray.

I feel sad for the families of Fandino and Barrio but their deaths are unusual and they chose their path. The bulls are not granted that same choice. 

The spectators size up these men too, cheer for their favourites and gasp and applaud shows of particular daring or skill. In the end however this is anything but a fair fight. Yes, the matadors risk injury and sometimes death, they enter the ring with nothing but a bright red cape to protect them against an unpredictable animal weighing about half a ton. The risks are obvious but I find I can feel little sympathy for them.

I feel sad for the families of Fandino and Barrio but their deaths are extremely unusual and they chose their path. If you decide to take your life in your hands – go rock climbing without a safety rope – the consequences are unfortunately yours to bare. The bulls are not granted that same choice. Commenting on Fandino’s death, The Humane Society said: “For the thousand bulls brutally killed in French bullfights every year, every single fight is a tragedy in which they have no chance of escaping a protracted and painful death. Blood sports like this should be consigned to the history books. No-one, neither human nor animal, should lose their life for entertainment.”

In the bullring there is a moment when any admiration I have for the matadors’ bravery or the spectacle of tradition vanishes. Surprisingly it isn’t at the death of the first bull or even the second – I have been expecting that and I am not squeamish. (Besides, I distance myself from the long process of breaking the animal’s spirit by watching most of it through my camera lens.) No, it is the moment the third bull is supposedly ‘pardoned’.

This bull is called Zahonero, smaller than the others, black and nervous, stumbling about the ring wild eyed and panting. All of a sudden there is loud chanting from the crowd and he is quickly forced back through the doors and out of sight. I cheer and receive confused and disapproving looks from the people close to me. I am delighted – he has been allowed to live. The lady sitting next to me explains, in a mixture of Spanish and French (I speak neither well and she no English), they have only let him go because he wasn’t good enough. “El toro es malo,” she says, wagging a finger at me. He hasn’t shown enough fight, he has shied away from conflict and the crowd doubted he would provide them with an exciting enough ‘show’. He was wasting our time. He will, she says, be killed outside the ring.

Full house: ‘The crowd size up the bull, its fierceness and breeding’

It is estimated that around 40,000 bulls die in bullfighting in Spain each year. Globally that number rockets to a staggering 250,000. Bullfighting is still popular in Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico. Bred entirely for the purpose, the bulls are usually around four years old by the time they enter the ring and have lived a life of luxury in comparison to their meat-producing cousins. But this is not an easy or quick death. It takes by my estimation around 30 to 40 minutes, by which time the animal is blind with panic, bleeding and exhausted.

Death comes in three stages: Tercio de Varas, Tercio de Banderillas and Tercio de Muerte. Each entails its own colourful elements and traditions to adhere to, a carefully choreographed series of acts leading to the moment the matador strikes the final blow. He is meant to plunge a long sword to the back of the exhausted animal’s neck, supposedly killing the animal instantly. This does not always seem to be the case. I see one matador drive the sword in five times before the animal collapsed on its side in the sand, legs still kicking.

I leave the stadium very much in need of a large glass of wine. What I have known all along is now as clear to me as ever. This really was nothing more than a blood sport hiding behind the pomp and ceremony of tradition, a mask of tenuous bravery and a pair of tight glittery trousers.

Another experience to add to the list of things I will never do again.