In a remote Himalayan valley, an archer and a shooter are calmly preparing for a trip of a lifetime to represent Bhutan at the London Olympics, but winning is not the main target.
Archer Sherab Zam and shooter Kunzang Choden, both 28-year-old women, are the only two athletes to represent the remote kingdom at the 2012 Games, competing on wildcard entries allocated to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees (NOC) can take part, even if no athletes have qualified.
Neither Sherab nor Kunzang expect to win medals for Bhutan, an impoverished, largely Buddhist country between India and China which only opened up to foreigners in 1974, banned TV until 1999 and uses happiness to measure its success.
However, they head to London carrying a nation’s pride and will join thousands of other dedicated athletes at the Olympics who go largely unnoticed, except by their own country.
Competing against highly funded athletes with state-of-the-art equipment from richer countries is tough, but Sherab and Kunzang — who do not own a bow or rifle — are both realistic and their aim is to try to beat their personal best.
“Participation is more important than winning a medal,” Sherab said over coffee in Thimphu, which claims to be the only world capital without a traffic light.
“Bhutan is just a small country of just 700,000 [people]. There is a lot of pressure on us, but we must be realistic about our chances. We just want to do well,” Kunzang added.
While top world athletes like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are the faces most people associate with the Olympics, it is athletes like Sherab and Kunzang who represent the majority of the 10,500 athletes at the Games and embody the Olympic spirit.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle,” the Olympic creed states.
With huge amounts of money being injected into sports in many countries, the divide between rich and poor nations is getting wider. Poorer nations struggle to attract and retain athletes as even the top performers struggle to make a living from their sport.
Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) secretary-general Sonam Karma Tshering said it was getting harder for small NOCs to get into the Olympics, as they did not want to send athletes without a chance of competing well.
Bhutan is always among the countries with the fewest athletes at the Olympics. In Beijing, Bhutan was one of six nations to send just two competitors. The South Pacific island nation of Nauru sent only one.
“So many athletes have become superhuman and it is hard to match that, despite our athletes having sheer passion and enthusiasm,” Sonam said over a traditional Bhutanese meal of rice and curry in a Thimphu restaurant.
“But our government is starting to realize the benefit of sport to address the growing issues we have with the youth [such as unemployment of 9.2 percent] ... So we are trying to identify and fund sports where we have potential in the future,” he added.
It is the eighth time that Bhutan, a country about the size of Switzerland, will compete in archery at the Olympics, the only event it has taken part in so far. Its entries have always been on wildcards, as no athlete has qualified for the Games.
It made sense that archery was the first event Bhutan entered at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, as archery is the national sport and a national obsession, steeped in myths and legends dating back to the times of the Buddha.