03 August 2013

A few lessons from the Bhutanese sports scene

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

There is something quite charming about sports in Bhutan. Maybe it is the mix of quirkiness and Corinthian ideals that make it so adorable. Grown men dancing and singing after a target is hit on the archery range, members of the Bhutanese royal family fully engaged in a local basketball tournament, and the president of the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF) blowing a vuvuzela during a match his club was playing in are some of the sights witnessed by this columnist during a one week visit to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Bhutan is still a long way off from leaving a competitive mark in the international sports arena. Among a number of different factors, Bhutan’s small population (around 750,000) and economic size (GDP is ten times smaller than Nepal’s) puts its sports at a distinct disadvantage at the global level. The country’s sports sector largely depends on foreign handouts and expertise to sustain itself.

Despite the challenges and its relative low profile, there are a couple of takeaways from Bhutanese sports that its Nepali counterpart would do well to notice. 

Branding a nation through sports

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. A traditional version of the sport is very popular across the country. Bhutan has parlayed the sports popularity to develop a host of Olympic archers in the international version of the sport. The Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) has made developing archery a priority and gives it extra attention and funding according to Sonam Tshering, general secretary of the BOC.

Despite mediocre results, through archery, Bhutan has made a name for itself in the international sports community. During every Olympic Games there is sure to be a handful of media features on archery in Bhutan and many sports enthusiasts have come to know Bhutan because of the country’s archery tradition.

Contrast this with Nepal, which in the guise of political harmony spreads its resources thin amongst various sports and tends to arbitrarily send athletes to international events and thus has failed to carve a niche or command attention in any sport at the global level.

Quality fields

Anyone that has followed the ongoing King’s Cup football tournament in Bhutan will have likely seen images of the gleaming artificial pitch at Thimphu’s Changlimithang Stadium. While constant rainfall forced the SAFF U-16 Championship in Kathmandu to be played on less than ideal pitches, possibly hurting Nepal’s technically gifted under-16 side the chance to win the tournament, the King’s Cup tournament has been going on without a hitch and seen attractive play because of the durable synthetic surface.

Thimphu's Changlimithang Stadium
In fact, every training session of all the participating clubs has been held at Changlimithang Stadium. Furthermore, after a match in the tournament is finished, locals of all ages play under the floodlights on the same field until as late as 1AM in the morning.

Along with several synthetic mini-pitches, the BFF just completed installing a second full-sized artificial field in Thimphu.

“Our focus is on installing high quality pitches over building stadiums or adding seats,” explained BFF President Ugen Tsechup Dorji, who also is the president of local side Thimphu City FC.

“With quality artificial pitches we can really develop our grassroots and youth football and maximize the number of people playing football in Bhutan.”

Enjoying domestic competition

Basketball is hugely popular with a section of Bhutan’s population. Word on the street is that Bhutan’s 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, was a big fan of the NBA and  as a result quite a few Bhutanese, mostly in the higher strata of the country – including the King’s sons, gravitated towards basketball.

This is quite evident at the Monsoon Basketball Tournament in Thimphu. The parking lot outside the basketball hall is regularly packed with SUVs.  Inside there is intense competition between local basketball clubs and a healthy crowd on hand to witness it. The fact that the tallest player on the court is 6’3” and there is not a single player close to being good enough to play at the American college level, never mind the NBA, is moot to the fans. It is their local competition and they enjoy it.

Similar tournaments in Nepal are often written-off as having no scope. If a sport does not have international potential it is not worth the time.

Perhaps the Bhutanese might not realize it, but sports in Bhutan can teach us that there is much more to sports than merely winning at the highest levels. It can serve as great tool to help brand a nation, it can simply be about creating spaces where people can play the sport they love and it can provide an entertainment option for the community. This line of thought is quite fitting for a country that subscribes to the ideal of Gross National Happiness, a philosophy that values quality of life over commercial indicators.