RIO DE JANEIRO – The Olympics took an odd twist for me Friday when I was turned down for an interview by an athlete named Karma. If I believed in karma, I would no longer believe in Karma. Nonetheless, I will be rooting for Karma and for these Olympics to be great, though frankly neither one needs me, because the Olympics are always great, and Karma is a big reason why.
Karma is one of two athletes here from Bhutan, and yes, that’s her name: Karma. Her sport is archery. (The other athlete from Bhutan, Lenchu Kunzang, is a shooter.) Karma, 26, flew more than 9,000 miles to come to Brazil, perform in front of a mostly empty stadium, and not come close to a medal. Her coach, Tashi Tshering, who stood behind her during Friday’s ranking round, said, “Every archer and coach has a dream to participate—not necessarily to win medals.”
But just participating is a big deal in Bhutan, a country of less than 800,000 people that is sandwiched between India and China. The annual archery national championships are a huge event there. Prince Jigyel Ugyen has fielded a team and won it. Tshering said the royal family wished Karma well before she left. Tshering said, “Everybody’s watching, everybody’s cheering for her.”
That is the Olympics. That’s what you sometimes miss when you hear about state-sponsored doping and IOC corruption and sewage-filled water and (I’m not done yet) facilities not being ready and the utter foolishness of any country, especially a struggling one, spending billions of dollars to host a two-week athletic competition.
I have been amused by the suggestion in the last year that the IOC pull the Olympics out of Rio. That’s a brilliant solution—sure, Brazil, you spent billions of dollars with the expectation you will host the Olympics, but now we’re taking them away!
No. We’re here now, for better or worse. And while the big picture may be worse, there will be moments when it feels worth it. Karma competed in a flower-print hat with a stuffed bunny hanging from her back and her credential hanging from her hip. You don’t see that in boxing. But she was here, representing her country in the biggest sporting event in the world. That will always be a thrill for people. Always.
On the off chance you don’t know as much about Olympic archery as a professional archery writer like myself, here is a primer: It became an Olympic sport in 1900. Belgium won 11 gold medals between 1900 and 1920, but then … well, there is no nice way to put this: Belgian archery went to crap. Belgium has not won an archery gold medal in 96 years. For Belgian archery fans, every Olympics cycle is like an arrow to the heart, shot by a Belgian practicing at a range down the street.
But see, this is one of the things I love about the Olympics: every country can specialize in something. In the United States, swimming, track and gymnastics are the most important events, though Americans take pride in their basketball dominance, too. But in some countries, half the population is riveted by some sport that Americans have never watched.
Despite being a professional archery writer, I had actually never seen Olympic archery until I went to Friday’s competition, and after two hours of staring at the archers, I still haven’t seen it. The arrows move faster than college basketball coaches taking another job. You have no chance of seeing the arrow go from bow to target. You just hear the sound at the end. But like with almost any sport, when you see it up close, you appreciate how hard it must be. The target is 76 yards away, and nobody misses.
And even though there weren’t many people there, it was an undeniably cool event, and it felt like the Olympics. The archery venue here is Sambódromo, a famous stadium that was built in 1984 for the samba parade at Carnival. If the archers looked up at the sky before they shot, which I do not recommend, they would have seen the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. Every archer there had to feel like they had arrived; crowd or not, TV cameras or not, medals or not, this was the peak of a few dozen athletic lifetimes. Maybe Rio shouldn’t have wanted the Olympics, and maybe the IOC shouldn’t have placed them here. But they are here now, and they will be great. They always are.