The host of the Winter Olympics, South Korea, excels in the summer game of archery. They grabbed gold medals in all four categories in Rio.
But the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan may be less than awed. Bhutan claims archery for its national sport, and archers pay no heed to the plunging temperatures of winter when they compete propelling arrows across a field.
And if you think of archery as a decorous game, think again.
In a recent tournament in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, archers competed with full-throated abandon. They hooted and hollered their way through the competition, encouraging their teammates, and deriding their opponents, marrying gusto and ritual.
With every arrow that hits the mark, Bhutanese archers line up, face the target, and break out in a traditional song and dance.
Legend has it that the father of the first king used his archery skills to vanquish a general of invading British forces in 1864. Judging by the competition underway, mastering those skills is no mean feat.
Archer Yeshey Norbu stands under a carved wooden canopy and through an interpreter describes the game. Half the members of each team shoot, while those not shooting gather on the other end of the field around the small target. It’s festooned with streamers of different colors, which archers wave back at their teammates to signal where their last arrow landed.
Norbu explains that, “You score one point when the arrow is very close to the target, at an arrow’s distance.” Interestingly, there are evidently no referees in Bhutan’s game. “You score 2 points when it’s a hit. You score 3 points if you hit the bull’s-eye,” he says.
The first team to reach 25 points wins the game.
The target is a narrow board, and the length of the field makes hitting it all the more remarkable. When an archer lets loose an arrow, it must travel 140 meters (460 feet) — twice as long as the range used in the Olympics.
On the sidelines, archer Uygen Thinley ponders that difference. Speaking in a mixture of English and Bhutan’s native Dzongkha, he borders on disdain. When an Olympian hits the mark, Thinley says, “We don’t really appreciate it all that much.”
“They shoot a short distance,” he says. “They have coaches and advanced composite bows,” which he says “are much more accurate than the traditional equipment we use.”
In a small workshop beside the archery field, a young man sharpens arrows. Both bows and arrows are fashioned out of the same simple material: bamboo. Yet, with their powerful draw and release, these archers can send a small arrow hurtling across a range that is half the length of a football field. “I’d challenge any Olympian to play our game,” Thinley says.
Norbu’s team is already out of the competition. But he says it’s not really about winning.
Archery traditionally has been the social glue that binds Bhutan’s rural communities — “everybody turns out,” he says. Norbu says his 13-member team was fielded from the village where he grew up.
“And when we assemble a team it is a social exercise of getting to know each other, meet new people. And it’s much more than a game of archery.”
Village women fuel the fun, jeering the other team and serving spectators and players alike the local brew, known as ara.
Thinley clarifies, saying, “We drink to loosen up,” plus he says improbably, “Some archers tend to get good aim after drinking!”
An archer wanders into the tent on the tournament grounds, cracks a can of beer on a table full of empties, takes a sip and heads back to shoot.
Alcohol and arrows. Doesn’t anybody ever get injured in this sport? “It’s very traditional and cultural to drink alcohol during matches,” Norbu says. “And sometimes some players drink too much.” And when they do, he says, “mishaps happen.”
Like the recent “mishap” involving Norbu’s teammate who took an arrow in the back.
“Nothing serious,” says Norbu. “We took him to the hospital, gave him a TT injection,” or tetanus shot, “and he recovered.” Brushing it aside, Norbu says, “Of course there are occasional mishaps, but it is not very common.”
As tough as Bhutanese archers may be, many are not above consulting astrologers or imploring the help of the deities to emerge victorious and unscathed.