Subject: Time: For Asia's smallest nations, chance in the Olympics already amounts to victory

August 23, 2004 / Vol. 164, No. 8

And in 54th place, it's...

For Asia's smallest nations, the chance to take part in the Olympics already amounts to victory


In the traditional archery competitions held in the snow-swept Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, women play a crucial role. But it's not as athletes aiming bamboo bows strung with lengths of stinging-nettle vine. Instead, Bhutanese women cluster near the male archers and take sole responsibility for keeping them from piercing the bull's-eye. "We distract them by singing rude songs," says Tshering Chhoden. "It's all part of the game." Adds her fellow Bhutanese Dhruba Kumar Chhetri: "The best thing to say is that the archer's wife has been sleeping around. That makes his concentration slip a little." Luckily, the modern Olympics give Bhutanese women a chance to do more than warble insults about a man's supposedly wandering wife. As the nation's top female archer, Chhoden, 24, is one of only two athletes representing this Buddhist nation of 600,000 in Athens. Both she and Tashi Peljor, a 26-year-old male archer, are competing in the only sport in which Bhutan has ever fielded athletes at the Olympics.

Altogether, 201 nations, territories and city-states—plus the island of Taiwan, which competes under the nebulous title of "Chinese Taipei"—joined the parade of athletes in last Friday's Opening Ceremony of the 28th Olympiad. Some, including the Americans, Russians and Chinese, are hoping to burnish their countries' reputations with bulging medal counts. Others, including Bhutan and East Timor, which is competing for the first time, are simply happy to wave their flags. Unlike high-profile gold-medal hopefuls, many of whom travel with their own personal trainers and a fridge full of optimal training food, athletes from these smaller nations exist in an alternate universe of constant anonymity and more-than-occasional cash crunches. "I heard the team from Kiribati is selling its [Olympic-souvenir] pins so they have enough money for daily living," whispers Chhetri, Bhutan's Olympic chief of mission, referring to the tiny South Pacific nation that is participating in its inaugural Games. Chhetri hands out two Olympic pins as a gift, anxious to show that Bhutan suffers no such difficulties.

Such generosity can't be displayed by East Timor's athletes, who arrived pin-less in an Olympic Village that considers these tchotchkes a major form of diplomatic exchange. But that matters little to the citizens of a nation that didn't formally exist until two years ago. In September 1999, hundreds of East Timorese civilians were killed and one-quarter of the population sent into temporary exile during a rampage by Indonesian anti-independence militias. When news of a massacre spread, Agueda Fatima Amaral, a marathoner who constitutes half of East Timor's Olympic contingent, gathered up a couple of suitcases under her arms, balanced a sack of rice on her head and joined the thousands running for their lives. Behind her, she could hear gunfire, but Amaral refused to glance back—just as she had trained herself to keep looking forward during the marathon. "Every time before, I had enjoyed running very much," she says. "But this time, it was not as much fun." Amaral and her children spent two weeks hiding in the mountains surrounding the capital, Dili. By the time they returned home, most of their possessions had been looted, including Amaral's only pair of running shoes.

Less than a year later, Amaral attended the Sydney Olympics, as an independent athlete competing under the Olympic flag. This time around, as she represents her nation for the first time, Amaral is hoping for a better finish than her 43rd place in Sydney. But the 32-year-old runner is not sure she'll even be competing. Although her airfare, as well as that of fellow marathoner Gil Da Cruz Trindade, was paid by the International Olympic Committee, funds that had been raised in Australia for their pocket money have mysteriously gone missing. Sitting in a café in the Olympic Village and hesitating over the price of bottled water, Amaral isn't sure she'll be able to afford to stay until the marathon is run in late August. "We will have to fly back home if the money doesn't appear soon," she says, refusing to speculate about where in the East Timorese sports hierarchy the money might have stalled. "We can't concentrate on our race if we have to spend our whole time thinking about economics."

For Bhutan's Chhoden, her Olympic competition will be over this week, but not because of any financial intrigue. In last week's qualification round, Chhoden placed 54th out of 64 archers, a better ranking than she had expected but still low enough to foretell her likely exit in the first elimination round. "I'm just glad I wasn't 63rd or 64th out of 64," she says. "That would have been a little embarrassing for Bhutan." Instead, Chhoden will be able to spend the rest of her fortnight in Athens teaching people where her homeland is and, more important, how a woman from the land of the thunder dragon got to shoot, not sing, her way into the pantheon of great archers.

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