Colombia’s Beer-Soaked National Sport May Have to Sober Up to Grow

In America, our national sport of choice is clearly football. For the majority of the world – perhaps outside of Latin America, where baseball still dominates – soccer (or football, to the natives) tends to be King when it comes to national rooting interests.

You might think that the nation of Colombia values soccer as its clear-cut national pastime, and in many cases, you’d be right. But there’s a lesser-known national sporting culture that is ingrained in Colombians’ DNA. It involves two-pound metal disks shaped like a chocolate lava cake, clay pits affixed with packets of gunpowder, and beer.

Lots of beer.

The game is called tejo, also known as turmeque. It got this name from the pre-Colombian aboriginals who are thought to have invented the original iterations of the game. Tejo still has meaning to Colombians in the popular strata, who identify the activity as a symbol of their native roots.

The game itself is played in both formal and informal settings, ranging from casual throwing sessions to organized tournaments. Players compete by tossing a metal, puck-like disk – the tejo – approximately 61 feet apart. For those familiar with cornhold or bean bag tosses, the setup is not dissimilar, aside from the sheer distance between the 3.2-foot by 3.2 foot clay targets.

Targets which – and here’s the kicker – contain packets of gunpowder, just in case anyone might be unsure whether or not the disk really did hit the target. Being tolerant to loud sounds is a requirement for those playing or observing a tejo match.

Also a requirement of tejo, seemingly, is to drink beer like its one’s second job. Tejo competitors in Colombia are often required to purchase cases of beer, ranging from 30 to 60 in count, as a condition of using the gaming equipment. For those who don’t mind downing a few cold ones while chucking metal disks at packs of gunpowder – who doesn’t? – it’s not the most unreasonable arrangement in the world.

Unfortunately, this has had the effect of turning tejo arenas into what is essentially half-bar half-sporting venue. The players don’t seem to mind.

‘As he grabs a bottle from one of two cases of lager strategically placed courtside at a Bogotá tejo club, retired priest Luis Acevedo calls beer “the elixir that gives tejo players their gusto.”’ (Wall Street Journal)

Unfortunately, like bars themselves, the booze-friendly (let’s be honest, booze-encouraged) atmosphere has precluded certain demographics, desirable demographics, from fully taking part in the sport. Just as a mother wouldn’t be eager for her young’n to escort papa and the pals to the local watering hole for a night of boozing, it shouldn’t be a surprise that women aren’t eager to let their children tag along to the drunken, metal-disk chucking, gunpowder-infused extravaganza.

There are exceptions, of course, but the beer-tied culture of tejo has been recognized as something of a barrier to the sport’s adoption and growth. This isn’t some overreaction or skewed perception that unfairly frowns upon beer drinkers. Tejo has become so synonymous with overdrinking that educators and parents are actively discouraging their children from taking up the sport altogether.

‘Although official tournaments are dry, most tejo courts are located in private clubs that double as cantinas. This discourages nondrinkers and minors, who aren’t allowed inside, from taking up the game. Tejo is ignored by the sports pages. Colombian schools refuse to add tejo as an extracurricular while parents push their children into more sober endeavors like soccer and cycling.’ (WSJ)

Is this a crisis of national security? No.

Is it a potential crisis of a national identity? Could be, with enough time and without the necessary changes being made.

Which is where a divide lies. Between the old heads, who (understandably) care little about the desires of the soccer (tejo?) moms, and would rather you pry their cerveza from their cold, dead hands than give up the sport as they know it willingly. But, still, even the most begrudging of old school tejodores would have to acknowledge that for any tradition to live on, adaptation is necessary. The youth cannot be simply ignored – and alienated – if the culture is to live on.

This is the impasse that lovers of tejo are at. It’s clear that, left to the status quo, it won’t be long before tejo goes the way of shuffleboard, a sport relegated to retirement communities in South Florida.

Even the Colombian government sees the threat of tejo dying out as a matter of lost culture not to be simply tolerated or ignored. A 2000 initiative to put tejo players on stamps and spread awareness did little to stop the sport’s decline. But, to their credit, the futility of that campaign hasn’t halted the lawmakers’ efforts.

‘…in October, lawmakers passed another bill declaring tejo part of the national patrimony, noting that it was invented by local Muisca Indians long before the Spanish conquest.

Congresswoman Neyla Ruíz, who dreams of making tejo an Olympic event, is the main sponsor of the bill. She says the legislation aims to “remove the stigma that this is a sport for boozers” by boosting government spending on public tejo courts that are alcohol-free.’ (WSJ)

This seems a reasonable middle ground; give the kids somewhere that their mothers and they will feel comfortable getting a feel for the game. Without a hoop to shoot in, it’s unlikely that Michael Jordan would have become Air Jordan, after all.

So, for the next tejo Jordan, let ‘em rip the disk away from boozing old hats who are tied to their ways and customs. When they’re of age, let them indulge as they please. But, first, to save tejo a good, clean love of the game must be forged – hold the cervezas, por favor.

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