The Western Schism in the Roman Catholic Church began in 1378, when the French cardinals believed the election of Pope Urban VI was invalid. They elected Clement VII as an anti-pope and he took up residence in Avignon in France. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3rd January 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. In Avignon, with its proud history of housing people who were opposed to the Papacy, Martin Luther was viewed as a hero and in his honour the Anti-Pope Games were founded, with the first events taking place on January 3rd, 1523.
The Games have taken place in most years when warfare has permitted. The events have changed somewhat over the years and now comprise the following sports.
The Papal Bullfighting Contest has taken place since 1523 and is the oldest sport featured at the Games. The bullfighters, dressed in a monk’s outfit similar to that of Martin Luther, have to place a copy of The Ninety-Five Theses, written by Luther, over each of the horns of the bull and also knock off the Papal Tiara, a jewelled three-tiered crown used at papal coronations from 1305 through 1963, that is fixed to the head of the bull. The person who performs these tasks in the quickest time wins the prize of a set of steak knives that are embedded in a wooden block shaped like a Papal Mitre. This is a toned-down version of the original first prize, which was a blood-coloured Papal Mitre stabbed through with a dagger.
The Basque bullfighter Martin Sanchez Llorente won more Papal Bullfight Contests (23) than anyone else with his time of 16 seconds in 1862 still a record. Fighters have been gored by the Papal Bull, but no one has been killed.
The next oldest race is the Greyhound Race that dates from 1621. Here the artificial hare is chased around three laps of the track by greyhounds dressed in monk’s costumes. The hare wears a papal crown and carries a Papal Staff. Again this is a toned-down version of the original where a real hare, wearing a mitre, was hunted to death by greyhounds. Nowadays, the winning greyhound and owner receive a kennel for the dog that is modelled on the Pope’s Palace at Avignon. A greyhound named Luther has won the race the most times with seven wins in the period 1898 – 1905.
Dating from 1645 the oldest athletics event is the papal shot-put where contestants have to land their throws in a papal mitre that is placed 15 metres and 17 centimetres from the rim of the shot-putt circle. Each contestant is allowed six attempts at this accuracy contest and the winner is the person who lands their putt in the hat the most times. Hugo Benjamin Draxler won the event 13 times between 1794 and 1831. Draxler has been an important figure in the Games as he also lobbied the organizers to introduce a spear throwing contest where the aim and the rules were literally the same as those of the shot-put contest. After the success of the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris both a discus and a hammer contest were introduced in 1925 with the Papal Mitre situated 60 metres and 68 centimetres from the throwing circle. No one has ever won the Discus event and the Hammer event has been won just once in 1958 by the Soviet Anatoli Timofftichuk.
The second oldest event is the Team Pope-Carrying Race. The original ceremonial throne was mainly used to carry popes to and from papal ceremonies in the Basilica of St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s Basilica. At the Anti-Pope Games though this has become a cross-country race for five people – one person dresses as The Pope and is carried by the other four through the streets of Avignon and around the countryside for a distance of 10 miles. At no point must the Pope’s mitre fall off or the team will be penalized 95 seconds of time. This is not as easy as it sounds because at various points on the course 10 citizens of Avignon are allowed to throw bread at the throne in an attempt to knock off the Pope’s hat. The Pope is only allowed to defend himself against the bread using his crozier. If the Pope uses other means to repel the bread, such as a tennis racket or baseball bat, then his team are penalized a further 95 seconds and must run the gauntlet of the bread-throwing Avignon citizens once again.