By Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert
Americans have baseball. In Bhutan, the national pastime -- and passion -- is archery.
Competitions bring isolated villages together across a land tucked into the Himalayas, and are so popular they attract everyone from peasant to prince. American- and Oxford-educated Prince Dasho Jigyel is a regular at tournaments. When asked the sport's role in Bhutanese culture, he replied, "Archery has played a very important part in building nationalism -- national identity through sport."
And Prince Dasho was there with pointers for the Royal visit in April by that other Prince and Princess -- William and Kate. She took aim in the spirit of friendship.
Certainly friendlier than in the 1860s, when British Redcoats were kept at bay by Bhutan's long-range archers, as they did for centuries against other invaders.
Bhutanese archers today still show a rare long-distance skill, hitting three-foot-high targets a football field-and-a-half away ... and like school teacher Sonam Dorgi, competing at this local tournament, still proud of doing it the old fashioned way, with traditional bamboo bow and arrows.
Dorgi showed Petersen a special bow made from a bamboo called yonka. "Almost similar but quality-wise, this yonka costs the most," Dorgi said.
But yonka bamboo is no longer used in the Olympics. Bhutan's hopefuls use competition-approved, high-tech carbon fiber bows and arrows, and shoot at targets half as far away as they used to be.
Twenty-six-year-old Karma (who like Pele goes by just one name) won a handful of medals in an Asian competition, and is excited to compete in Rio. Being in the Olympics, Karma said, "is a very, very big deal. It makes Bhutan proud."
But a sport so embedded in a country's fabric is no guarantee in the multi-million dollar world of Olympic competition. Bhutan's entire Olympic archery budget is $120,000 -- less than the annual salary of the American team's head coach.
At the team's modest training facility, just getting the new water system working is a challenge. But being outspent by millions doesn't faze the General Secretary of Bhutan's archery federation, Tsewang Rinchen.
Petersen asked, "How do you compete against countries that have more money?"
"I think the easy answer is to say, with heart," Rinchen replied.
But no Bhutanese archer has ever won a medal in the Olympics.
Karma carried her nation's flag at the opening ceremonies in Rio Friday night, and on Tuesday will compete in the round of 64 top female archers.
Prince Dasho -- who heads Bhutan's Olympic Committee -- has faith that Karma has a fighting chance at Olympic glory.
When asked what advantage Bhutan has in the sport, Prince Dasho replied, "It's in our blood. We'll be able to perform at the international scene better than others because, although we might lack the [capital], it might run in our genes, in our DNA."
An Olympic medal, or none, won't change Bhutan's ancient archery traditions -- and how it still brings joy here to everyday life.
- Bhutan's secret of happiness ("Sunday Morning," 04/17/16)
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