Spain matadors back in the ring but no fights in sight

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Olvera (España) (AFP)

Cape and sword in hand, bullfighter Javier Conde has started training again despite the ongoing closure of Spain's bullrings over the coronavirus epidemic and with no opening date in sight.

He trains with heifers, young females that are lighter and less dangerous than the fighting bulls, which can only be fought once.

"You're putting up a good fight, youngster!" he calls between moves at the Montes de Oca farming estate in Olvera in the southern Andalusia region.

On the sand of a small bullring set up at the foot of a hill, several others from his association are training with him, assistant bullfighter Candido Ruiz, apprentice matador Rocío Romero and a picador, who rides a horse carrying a lance.

Conde, who is married to famed flamenco singer Estrella Morente, told AFP the pandemic had been "very hard and very sad".

With the bullfighting season written off by the mid-March lockdown, he has been busying himself with other things.

"At home, I've been doing everything: painting, carpentry... (while) thinking of fighting every moment," he said, sighing over the "very complex situation" now facing the sector.

As Spain goes through the cautious process of rolling back the restrictions while trying to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there is still no date for the resumption of bullfights, which draw thousands of spectators in a season that runs until October.

"There are many families in bullfighting who are really struggling," says Conde of a sector worth some 4.5 billion euros ($5.0 billion) and, who is upset that the government has not any offered specific measures to help.

Bullfighting has long been a highly controversial issue, with animal rights activists arguing it is cruel and should be banned, while traditionalists say it should be preserved as a vital part of cultural heritage.

- Future unclear -

Inside the farmhouse, sitting under a bull's head mounted on the wall, rancher Jose Luis Sanchez hopes the bullfights will resume in July or August "because if not, it's going to be a disaster for breeders, bullfighters, for festivals, for everyone," he said.

Romero, the apprentice matador, is more optimistic, pointing to the reopening of the bullpens for training and the renewal of genetic selection testing for heifers to decide which can be used for reproduction.

"I'm feeling positive, I think the worst is behind us... and bit by bit, the bullfights will return and contests with young bulls," she said.

Antonio Banuelos who heads the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders (UCTL) recently told reporters that the situation was "the worst ever experienced in the history of bullfighting".

Not only was there the collapse of revenues, but there was also the risk that breeders would have to downsize to avoid the cost of keeping bulls.

Industry figures are also worried about the loss of festival revenues, saying they had no idea when bull runs would be permitted, given the uncertainties of the "new normal" brought on by the virus.

"We don't know what health and safety restrictions will be required for mass spectator events," said a source at ANOET, a national association representing the organisers of events with bulls.