Olympic Day Bhutan: Kind Requests and Forging Possibilities
My initial assigned job the morning of Olympic Day was to help out at the finish line of the running events. The men were running a full marathon (about 20 people), the women a half marathon (about 50 people) as well as two 3K fun runs—males and females in separate races. I noted when I arrived that they had a finishers archway, timing (a clock), music playing and a microphone set up for an announcer, as well as refreshments for the participants. Even though it was raining, spectators and fun runners were coming out in droves to watch and participate.
I had met the announcer at a prior function (I’m embarrassed I don’t remember his name so we’ll call him Mike). Mike was personable, friendly and outgoing, and yet as the time rolled on and the first runners were slated to arrive, he still hadn’t picked up the mic. So I shared with him that it’s really fun when an announcer gives the crowd information on the race course, a bit about the Bhutan Amateur Athletic Federation’s sponsoring of the event and generally get them hyped up about the race, running in general and race participants. This day was about encouraging participation and it was apparent he could play a huge role.
As suspected, because I’ve observed various other events where a Bhutanese is announcing, Mike was humble about taking this on. So he suggested that I be the announcer and that he could translate. I was extremely tempted to pick up the mic and go, as it would have been really fun, but it was much more valuable for him to get this experience. So I acted like the announcer to him, to get him fired up to take the lead and assured him that I would support as necessary.
After my rousing pep talk he announced the following in English—calmly, “The first female runners will be here very shortly. I’d like to kindly request that you clap when they arrive.”
This was a moment when I was psyched to remember that when Bhutanese do something that even I would perceive as being slightly out of place (which may not be for them), you can tease them about it and they take it in stride. Because I started to laugh really hard. He didn’t get why until I explained and teased him about his ‘kind request’, and then he joined me.
Mike proceeded to kindly announce the first women coming in. I then tried recommending that he interview the top women for the crowd and shared a few questions he could ask. After the first interview done at the finish line, I grinned and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up. He was finally warmed up and on his way to getting the crowd really into what was happening.
The Bhutanese are often dealing with inertia. Things will roll along as they do unless someone comes along and nudges the ball into moving in a different direction. One of the internal dilemma’s I have here is the incessant desire to recommend MANY MANY suggestions for change—while secretly not wanting them to change at all. My coming from a society that feels separatist and dramatically dysfunctional much of the time—Bhutan represents the glimmering hope of an archived way of being that the rest of the world is trying to get back to.
But I am here to water the seed of an Olympic program. And what I know from a life devoted to elite competitive sport is that one does not make ‘kind requests’ of budding elite athletes, a school system with no sport programs in place, or of parents who do not advocate sport or fitness for their children, if they are expecting change to come about in a timely manner. Or perhaps they can.
So I spent most of the rest of Olympic Day taking pictures, observing, taking notes and interacting with the kids. To help the BOC develop events and programs while preserving the beauty in their culture, is grappling to change up a society that is the antithesis of the highly competitive, only-gold-medals-count, sporting arena. The first prominent sign that I came across when entering the school grounds for Olympic Day was: Participation is More Important Than Winning. They believe this and so do I. But can this premise make Olympic Athletes?
The Bhutanese don’t put any energy toward the fact that its raining hard. They don’t necessarily want it to rain and they may make comment that it is going to rain, but if there is an event happening and they want to be a part of it they don’t stay home, they just get on with it. I asked Karma if they have rain jackets in Bhutan. The answer was no. They may or may not use an umbrella. The majority don’t and will stand exposed to the rain in their cotton Gho’s and never complain, cringe or even acknowledge that its raining. I offered my expensive Gortex jacket to a wet young boy wearing a t-shirt and who was visibly shivering, but he wouldn’t accept it. This is just the way things are in Bhutan.
Sitting at the finish line for several hours, I noted the behavior of the runners coming across the line and the spectators reaction to them. Virtually all of the women coming down the finish chute in front of the crowd showed signs of severe embarrassment at being in the limelight. About 1/3 of them stopped short of the finish line, as if they were unsure of whether they deserved to cross or not (my interpretation). This latter behavior showed true in the fun run with the younger kids as well—mostly from the girls.
There was no fencing or flagging to keep the crowds out of the way of the runners. They just stayed where they were told so as not to get in the way. If a new group ventured up and stood in an inopportune area, it was kindly requested that they move. And they did promptly—no questions asked. A cohesive society breeds actions that make sense. Yet I did find my myself reflecting on this behavior as if complying to the norm was giving in, and internally criticizing it (VERY interesting reaction). Americans are bred to push boundaries, be creative individualists, question authority. These are the aspects of our country that I love and thrive in and yet I recognize a grace and beauty present when compliance is applied by people with such warm demeanors. The more I observe the Bhutanese the more the foundation from which I’ve built a life is shaken—and I’m loving it.
Bhutan has the ingredients to put out some top runners: high altitude, petite stature and from what I can see from watching young and old alike carrying huge loads that would cripple the average American—they are naturally quite strong. Even being a carbohydrate rich nation which hasn’t yet been influenced by the Western world of carb-phobics and gluten intolerants, I am hard pressed to find an overweight person if I stand in one place and look around.
Kids also play—a lot. Everywhere in Bhutan including in congested, stray-dog ridden, Thimphu, the kids roam and play unsupervised—and are aggressive in their play time. They are predominantly an agrarian society so they take hard work in stride. Yet as with any country who develops an athletic program, they will need to train consistently over time in a sport to start to see results. Because what I did not see (yet) is those ingredients transferring into the toughness of elite distance runners.
It could be that the finish line behavior was socialized behavior and that the toughness I was seeking could be learned. But in addition to the stopping short of the finish line, athletes would not compete for a sprint finish, and they would collapse once crossing the line. The latter is either the Asian sporting dramatics I’ve seen in Japan and China, or that they were untrained for the distance and genuinely exhausted. In either case, the ingredients are in place. What the athletes do with these ingredients will determine their running prowess in the future.
In addition to the running events, an entire arena was staged at the school grounds to offer the
kids exposure to a variety of sports. There were two short soccer fields roped off and games were happening most of the day. A couple of Bhutan’s top archers were on hand to expose the children to using an Olympic bow (traditional Bhutanese bows are much different). There were opportunities for the kids to participate in boxing and basketball as well as a couple of obstacle courses and some fun events like t-shirt painting. The BOC moves the event to a new region of the country each year because the villages here are distinctly separated by their topography and so that a new group of kids can get the benefit of this program over time. Where ever they go thousands show up for the festivities.
As we’ve proven in America, the bud of a young athlete blossoms in the schools and community programs as well as through encouragement and/or role modeling by the parents. I am consistently grateful that I am a product of all of those entities being solidly in place during my childhood (thanks mom and dad!!). Bhutan has almost none of these in place. So the BOC is taking on the guise of big brother in showcasing the possibilities of having a life of health, wellness and perhaps competitive sports, until the school systems and parents are willing to step in and help. This could be perceived as a daunting job but they are taking it in stride with a solid plan. And they are patient.
One of the challenges is that kids here go to school from early morning until 5 PM. Then they do chores, eat and study. If they live on a farm they most likely will work on the farm helping their parents. In the rural areas—which is most of Bhutan—it is common for a child to have to walk several or more miles to get to and from school. During Expedition Bhutan it was common for us to come across kids who were ‘commuting’ home from school on foot, which could be an hour or more trek in rugged country.
Current generations of parents support education, as that has steadfastly proven to be a means for a better life. The younger 20 and 30-somethings, such as the folks I work with at the BOC, and others I’ve met at various meetings and gatherings, have a different attitude. They see their generation of parents supporting sport for kids—if the programs are in place to support. And the BOC realizes this and are taking action in this regard.
In the meantime, exposure of sport to the masses—such as Olympic Day—as well as international events that will happen in Bhutan, will remain the role models for the aspiring athletes of Bhutan’s future.
Since running is one area where they would like to move more quickly, I’ve recommended that the messaging not only be for children. But to create programs to generate parents participation now, with the hope that the children will come along. They have an all weather track in Thimphu that is never used and that is quite visible to the public. So one of the things I’ll be working on is starting a running club in the capital to help this process along.
Women play an influential role in the family. In particular, the matriarch. So we’ve decided to host a 5K fun run for women while I’m here, to generate interest in running, fitness and training among these family strongholds. I’m offering to train whomever is interested for this event and in an effort to start to offer the people training programs that are safe, effective and that work. One of the things I loved seeing at Olympic Day were all the women running in the fun run in their Kira skirts. I am such a huge advocate of getting newbies into sport, and it was priceless to see these women come out and participate in whichever outfit they felt comfortable.
Highly successful Olympic Day in Haa, culminated with an exhibition basketball game against the BOC and the local Indian Army. Even in the super short time I’ve been here its been easy to grow fond of the enthusiastic young guys working for the BOC, so I slid into becoming a very loud fan quite readily during the game. Until I realized I was the only really loud fan.
Sonam played as well as intelligently quiet Biju, who was one of our staff for Expedition Bhutan and despite their “kind and nice” version of basketball and their playing at 2000 feet altitude above where they live, they handily outclassed the Indian contingent. The most exciting part of the game was seeing the kids rooting for the BOC. They instantly saw them as ‘one of us’ and instinctively played the part of the “our team” fan. Perhaps in 20 years time we’ll be reading research papers in Sport Sociology on fan frenzy in Bhutan—not?
On our drive back to Thimphu we took a different route. The always-a-one-lane-road snaked down valley. As the topography steepened into the 1000 foot drop offs, pristine views and misty hill tops I recall so easily when thinking of biking and trekking during Expedition Bhutan, Sonam fell asleep and Namgay negotiated the thick fog that intermittently shrouded our car. With the windy mountain road and occasional cow, yak or horse that would emerge from the mist and stand its ground in the road, I was assured again, that whether by bike, foot or car, one does not move quickly through this labyrinth of natural features. That is just the way things are in Bhutan.
I wanted to doze since it had been a long day, and as I struggled to stay awake to support Namgay
in his driving, I heard him quietly chanting prayers. As if to sooth the stress of the drive and to stay alert, he calmly and beautifully started to sing traditional Bhutanese songs. While I was concerned that sleeping Sonam might get whiplash from his head flopping from side to side on the windy road, Namgay ended our few days of activity within the grace of the chanting of Buddhist verse. It seems our butter lamp offering served us well this time around.
Hats off to Karma Dorji and Tshering Zam of the BOC for heading up a fabulous event! Daily I am in awe of the people here and what they are striving toward, and I am so grateful that I can be here to play even a tiny role in helping their cause.