Brazil Looks to Its Indigenous Tribes for New Olympic Archers

Living in the rainforest and shooting arrows since childhood might be the perfect training for Rio 2016.
A member of Brazil's Asurini do Tocantins tribe participates in the II Indigenous Nations' Games of Para, in Altamira, Brazil on August 15, 2005. (Reuters/Paulo Whitaker)

To win Olympic medals, a country needs lots of talent, the resources to train that talent, and the desire to spend those resources, as my colleague Matt O’Brien put it.

As host of the 2016 Olympics, Brazil has plenty of incentive to rake in as much Olympic gold as possible, and with almost 200 million people, it has quite the talent pool, too.

What’s more, the country has discovered that certain segments of its sizeable population come prepackaged with Olympic-worthy skills. Why train new Olympic archers, the thinking seems to be, when some Brazilians have already been shooting arrows since they were the size of a quiver?

A scout named Marcia Lot, from the Brazilian nonprofit Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, has been combing the country’s Amazonian indigenous communities in order to find natural-born archers ages 14 to 19 to train for the upcoming games. She was looking not only for Katniss Everdeen-level aim, according to the British Independent newspaper, but also for the “discipline and character” required to compete in the world’s most important sporting event after, you know, living in the rainforest your whole life.

“They can hunt and hit a macaw flying 100m up in the air and spear a fish,” Virgilio Viana, CEO of the foundation, told the Independent. “The challenge for us now is to mix this traditional wisdom with the cutting edge technology of the Olympic sports.”

Lot chose 80 such youths, and by the end of the month three will advance to the country’s Olympic team.

At first blush, this may seem a touch exploitative—or at best, comically similar to the plot of the second Mighty Ducks movie. (The boy who grew up roping cattle becomes the team’s best puck-handler and competes in a multinational sporting event, etc.)

On the other hand, medaling or even competing in the Olympics can turn your life around. And while the Brazilian government's goal might be simply to rack up accolades in the year that it hosts, it could also be a rare note of recognition for a population that’s more commonly in the news for being on the receiving end of shady land deals. A father of one of the boys—a 16-year-old whose first toy was a bow and arrows—told the British press that his son’s participation is a sign that the country’s once-marginalized indigenous groups are rising in stature.

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on scouts who roam Brazil’s backcountry in search of lithe preteens to potentially enlist in modeling—and many of the girls saw it as a way out of the rural poverty they grew up in.

Perhaps we’re simply seeing Brazil capitalize on a wider array of its peoples’ natural attributes, however odd it may seem.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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