Colombia's National Sport Mixes Explosives and Beer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Fireworks and beer make a combo that most red-blooded Americans could get behind.
By Chris Wallace
Victory is the sound of gunpowder igniting. But even notching some wins, by the time the game was nearly over, we were down 9–7 (out of 10), and triumph was far from assured. On paper our team of six looked solid — a rainbow of nationalities united in a common cause: to acquit ourselves admirably in the arena of battle. In this instance it was in an open-air cancha (court) in San Gil, Colombia, filled with locals blasting ranchero music. It was the perfect ambiance for my first-ever game of tejo, the country’s national sport.
Tejo got its start hundreds of years ago in the town of Turmequé, in Colombia’s Boyacá Department. Back then, the sport was populated by the indigenous Muisca people. The Muisca didn’t have a written language, but oral history suggests tejo was first played during the market town’s raucous festivities. It endured through the years, earning a hallowed spot in Colombia’s cultural heritage as well as a prominent place in the country’s sporting landscape.
Tejo is horseshoes with booze; bocce with explosives.
The fundamentals are simple. Teams stand about 20 meters from a target composed of a box filled with clay. Nestled in the clay is a ring, and the goal is to lob a metal disc (the tejo) into the ring’s center, or as close to the ring as possible. So long as the tejo sticks in the clay, you stand a shot at getting a point; if it bounces out, it’s a big fat zilch. There’s a catch — packets filled with gunpowder are strategically placed in the box. Hit one, and the resulting explosion signals an automatic three points for your team. A hit is usually enough to swing victory. Basically, tejo is horseshoes with booze; bocce with explosives. But it’s the communal act of the game that makes it so enjoyable.
For a long time, tejo was a male-dominated activity associated mostly with farmers and the lower classes. But in the middle of the 20th century, politicians got into it as a way to relate to, or to pander to, the people they governed. The sport’s popularity spread, and eventually all social classes were enjoying it. In the 21st century, tejo continued to break gender and class barriers, and these days women of all ages compete in local tournaments across the country.
“I always tell visitors that playing tejo is the most Colombian thing you can do in Colombia,” says Shaun Clausey, owner of Macondo Hostel in San Gil. Clausey has been running tejo games for his guests every week for the past eight years — it’s his only guaranteed crowd-pleaser of an outing. But it isn’t just about the sport, he says: “It’s about the music and interacting with locals.” Clausey believes that tejo’s appeal stretches beyond borders because it’s similar to other popular global sports like bowling, bocce and curling, but, as he puts it, “Colombia added gunpowder and made it exciting.”
“The 70-cent beers are a big attraction too,” he adds.
Rich heritage aside, our group, down on points and buzzed on beer, wasn’t holding out hope for a miracle. Petros, the Greek playboy who’d deputized himself our unofficial captain — his alpha-male posturing suggested he was a clutch player, the one to put points on the board — had become too distracted by Spanish teammate Maria. I wasn’t exactly representing the U.S. like an Olympian, notching just one of our seven points — an effort that even the most polite of Colombians would regard as uninspiring. Luckily it was the quiet Finn who turned the tide: On the last throw, Antti channeled his inner Viking berserker, landing the tejo flush on the center packet. There was a spark and an explosion. Electricity filled the air as everyone focused on the sound. Then, a deafening cacophony of cheers and applause while beer bottles clinked in toast. We’d won.
Tejo may be firmly stitched into Colombia’s cultural fabric, but could it take off in the U.S.? Who knows? But if someone started a sport that combined throwing things, beer drinking and the Fourth of July, would you buy stock in it? I sure as hell would.
- Chris Wallace, OZY Author Contact Chris Wallace