Work in Sports
Shoot to thrill
Archers carry Bhutan's Olympic hopes
SYDNEY, Australia -- In the neighborhood of nations, Bhutan is a latecomer to the block party. Accessible only on horseback or by foot as recently as the 1960s, not admitted to the United Nations until the 1970s, and without TV until fewer than two years ago, the Himalayan mountain kingdom didn't show up at an Olympics until 1984. That year, and every Games since, Bhutan has sent only one kind of athlete to the world's greatest carnival of sport.
Archery is Bhutan's national pastime. But Olympic archery scarcely resembles the sport that the country's two Olympians, Tshering Chhoden and Jubzhang, practice back home. A Bhutanese archery competition might go on for four days. Bows aren't factory-made from fiberglass, but hand-carved of bamboo, with bowstring fashioned from the tissal plant. Arrows have feathers but, says team manager Karma Dorji, "only pheasant and eagle feathers shed and found in the forest, because in Bhutan we mustn't kill." (It's a Buddhist country where every living thing is sacred.) Archers take aim from 145 meters away, far beyond the Olympic distances of 90 meters for men and 60 for women. In the three annual national tournaments, says Dorji, "we do not allow sights or stabilizers or trigger releases, to preserve our culture."
Most distinctively, archers in the Dragon Kingdom are expected to participate in elaborately choreographed dancing, drinking and even trash-talking, both to boost teammates' morale and throw a rival off. Each team even has a squad of young women in kira, the traditional dress, who wave scarves at arrows as they whiz their way toward the target, trying to alter their path. "There is teasing, there is singing," Dorji says. "You try to bring down your opponent's morale and concentration."
Both of Bhutan's shooters here have won events on the Asian circuit, but the country has never made its mark on the Olympics. "Our archers are here to do their best," Dorji says. "We expect them to shoot without any nervousness, at the same level as they do at home. We believe in skill, yes, but also in the luck that favors you on a particular day."
Would the Bhutanese prosper if the Olympics adopted the boisterous Himalayan style of archery, which dates back centuries, to a time when the Bhutanese had to defend their valleys from invaders? "I think so!" Dorji says. "We'd have a few tricks up our sleeve!" But for now, Olympic archery is disputed in the usual staid fashion, and Bhutanese sleeves turned up empty. Chhoden, 20, lost to Hamdiah of Indonesia in the first round of the women's competition on Sunday at the
Archery Park in Homebush Bay. Jubzhang -- like soccer players in Brazil, a lot of archers don't seem to need second names -- had more experience than Chhoden; he was shooting in his third Olympics. But he bowed out in his opening match, too, losing to Belgium's Nico Hendrickx.
It wasn't even 10 a.m. on Day 3 of the Olympics, and citizens of Bhutan were already left looking ahead to Athens. Nonetheless, for the first time ever, the country's half million people had been able to follow their Olympians on TV.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Wolff's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.