Death-defying bull riders thrill crowds in popular Aussie sport

Sydney (AFP) –


Eight seconds might not seem a long time in sport, but for Australian daredevil cowboys hanging on to a bucking bull it could be the difference between life and death.

Bull riding is a popular rural sport in the vast continent and on Saturday, top athletes competed in the thrilling and dangerous contest in front of thousands of cheering spectators.

"I'm really passionate about bull riding. It's such an extreme sport," said Troy Wilkinson, a leading bull rider from a village about 530 kilometres (329 miles) north of Sydney, where the event was held.

"To be able to conquer a massive animal, a bucking bull, is amazing and an awesome feeling to ride such an athletic animal and to feel that power between your legs and conquer that," he told AFP.

Once dubbed the "most dangerous eight seconds in sports" by National Geographic, bull riders are judged on how long they can stay on a bull, and how well they ride the animal while it is bucking.

The sport is so dangerous that injuries are just part and parcel of being a bull rider.

Wilkinson, 28, has had an elbow reconstruction, broken his ribs and nose, fractured his jaw, had his teeth knocked out and torn his groin.

The bull riders aren't the only ones at the heart of the intense action.

Bullfighters -- also known as professional protection athletes -- work as bodyguards to the bull-riders, and protect them from the massive animals after they fall off.

Mitch Russell, who used his body to shield a rider being charged by a bull during the event, is aware of the risks.

"It could mean death. I haven't seen it, I don't want to see it. But that's what's involved. Eighty kilo (176 pounds) man versus 800 kilo bull," he told AFP.

Russell breeds bucking bulls, and speaks affectionately of the creatures, some of which have become celebrities in their own right.

Glen Young, the general manager of Professional Bull Riders Australia, said the sport was growing in popularity in his country.

"The sport takes two to tango... Both of them are considered athletes and it's in our best interests to look after these bulls and ensure they have a safe life and enjoy the sport," he told AFP.

"It's no difference to other great animal sport where good genetics produces great athletes.

"Five years ago, no-one really knew much about these bulls but what we're finding is the bull merchandise outsells the rider merchandise two to one."