The Himalayan nation of Bhutan may not set the medals table alight at the upcoming London Olympics. With only two athletes, its role on this world stage of sport will be a minor one. But Bhutan is on a mission to transfer the centuries-old national sport of archery to the level of the modern-day Olympic Games. All this with the help of the Netherlands.
Sherab Zam will be Bhutan’s only archer at the Olympics, although she never really qualified for the event (the other athlete in Bhutan’s Olympic team is a female shooter). Bhutan’s Olympic Committee selected Sherab after the nation received a wild card from the International Olympic Committee, to acknowledge the efforts Bhutan is putting into the development of modern archery.
Sherab is currently on a training session in the Netherlands as part of her preparation for the Games. She will travel to London in early July where she’ll stay until the end of the Olympics. She was invited by the Dutch Archery Association (NHB), which has a special exchange program with its Bhutanese counterpart.
Listen to our audio report from Papendal training ground: (or click here)
The programme got off the ground some ten years ago, when the NHB received an invitation to come to Bhutan as part of a Dutch-Bhutanese cultural exchange scheme. “They’re working really hard to improve their skills to compete with big archery nations,” says NHB’s Wim Trienekens. “The government decided to use sport to show the rest of the world that it’s a modern country. They picked archery as that’s their national sport.”
Perhaps ‘sport’ is not the right term here. Although archery is hugely popular in Bhutan, it’s the traditional form, which is more of a cultural game rather than a competitive sport. “It’s an event between villages full of colours and traditions,” says Mr Trienekens. “They don’t see it as a competition.”
Rules and materials vary vastly from modern day archery. Bows and targets are made of bamboo and the distances are different.
Watch this video of a traditional archery match in Bhutan: (or click here)
No women allowed
Another difference is that traditional archery in Bhutan is only open to men. Women are only allowed to play the modern, competitive form of the game, which is why Sherab Zam is able to compete in London. “I took up the sport in 2005,” she says on the Dutch NHB training course at the Papendal complex, which houses several training grounds for Dutch Olympic sports. “As a girl, it was the only way I could actually do archery.”
The NHB is not planning on trying to break Bhutan’s centuries-old archery traditions. “They should keep those traditions as they are,” says Mr Trienekens. “They represent a huge cultural value which will last for probably a few more centuries. We are there for the modern version of the game.”
The biggest problem Bhutan’s archery faces is the country’s sports infrastructure – or lack of it. “There’s a big potential, but they have to be able to gauge that potential,” says Mr Trienekens. “There’s no tradition of archery clubs or archery schools where young talent can be nurtured and trained. We’re working with them to build that infrastructure. We tell them that supporting talent will take at least eight to ten years, so they have to be committed and patient.”
Bhutan's Olympic legend
Until now, money has not been a problem. Facilities in Bhutan are free and talented archers receive free training. Ms Zam’s coach Tshering Chhoden is something of an Olympic legend in Bhutan, having competed in two Olympics (2000 and 2004) and having even carried the national flag at the 2004 opening ceremony in Athens. That year, she became the first Bhutanese archer to reach the second round in the tournament.
“I used to train here in the Netherlands before the 2004 Games, so I regard being here as a lucky charm,” she laughs, while she’s coaching Sherab at Papendal. “Doing well in Athens brought me a lot. We received a heroes’ welcome when we got back to Bhutan. We were treated as stars by the prime minister and we received cash grants for our results. So the government is really making an effort.”
Gross National Happiness
“Bhutan is famous for its Gross National Happiness,” Ms Chhoden continues. “Sport is regarded as an important tool to improve that, so everyone takes it very seriously.”
She also hopes the growing popularity of modern day archery will help change the perception some people have of the role of women in sports. “We see more men who appreciate that women like Sherab participate in archery. I meet many older people who are very impressed by what we’re doing. Some of them didn’t even know that women can actually do archery.”
Despite the training sessions in the Netherlands and the UK, Tshering and Sherab don’t think Bhutan will be on the medal podium in London, beating archery giants like Korea, Russia and the US. “We all dream of winning medals, but we have to accept the truth: it’s going to be very difficult. You can’t expect a miracle there. But you never know. As the old Olympic saying goes, it’s more important to participate than to win.”
It’s a phrase that applies to Bhutan and the many other small nations as they prepare for their short spell in the Olympic limelight. For Sherab Zam, finishing 50th or 60th will be her (and Bhutan’s) equivalent of winning a gold medal.