Tejo is under assault again. Some years ago the game was bought outright by South American beer companies, an attack that disturbed many at the time but which, in retrospect, has proved altogether favorable. The current assault is far more sinister. An anonymous online survey recently dubbed Tejo "the world's worst sport", placing it squarely behind other "worst sport" finalists including cricket, buzkashi, and golf.
Tejo lovers are outraged. Their venerable game, pronounced "tay-ho", may be the oldest surviving sport in the western hemisphere. It was played by indigenous peoples in what became Colombia long before Spanish Conquistadors dared cross the Atlantic. Tejo still reigns as Colombia's national pastime, an honor rightfully earned by both history and tradition.
In the pantheon of great national games, Tejo belongs right up there with baseball, not in the lowly company of cricket, buzkashi and golf. I mean no disrespect to anyone, but those three contests made the list for obvious reasons. A test match in Cricket drags on for days and the rules are incomprehensible to anyone who was not born to the game. Mercifully naps are permitted, but other necessary amenities such as dining rooms, lavatories with showers, and sleeping accommodations are scarce. Buzkashi, meanwhile, was created by warring Afghan tribes as an occasional respite from battle. It is an endless game of polo with horsemen batting around a headless goat carcass. An avid buzkashi fan must take his family on vacation to enjoy a good match, as the game has no discernible ending, reminiscent of the wars that are fought there. I do not know if any rules exist in buzkashi, or if women are allowed to participate or spectate. I surmise the answer in both cases is no but I truly don't care. Aside from cheese, I have no interest in goats, dead or alive. As for golf, my feelings are mixed. I would be inclined to object to its inclusion among the world's worst sports, and I am certain the Scots will mount an erstwhile defense, but let's face it, poorly played public golf, in America at least, is a tedious enterprise and costs a fortune to play. The actual rules are complex and rarely observed by amateurs.
In contrast I give you Tejo, an exciting family game which, unlike the others, can be played drunk or sober. Did I mention that the earliest assault on Tejo occurred some years ago when beer companies bought the sport? I wasn't kidding. Beer has become an important part of the Tejo culture and contributes much to the game's popularity. Traditionally, the beverage of choice was chicha, a powerful home-brewed corn liquor which, like the game itself, pre-dates Colombia's founding by several thousand years. However, chicha is to Tejo as beach racing was to early Nascar: a fun idea, but not likely to grow the sport. The association of both sports with commercial branding has worked wonders and in Tejo circles, beer rules.
Inner city Tejo, my particular choice, is played in a room that's about the size of a junior high school gym. The room resembles a barn, but it's lit up like an auto repair shop. Access from the street (there is no door) is via a wide entrance where women are grilling chorizo sausages and arepas (gritty pancakes). The air is smoky and dusty. I say dusty because the floor is hard-packed dirt, and smoky because periodic explosions render it so. The first thing you notice is that men are standing at urinals relieving themselves, hidden from view only slightly by 3-foot high wooden barriers that don't really furnish any kind of privacy. The reason for the urinals is readily apparent—a 20-foot high mountain of cold beer in cases. Poker and Aguila are among the preferred brands in the blue-collar neighborhoods. Any North American visitor who finds his way into a Tejo sanctuary will likely find someone offering him a Colombia Gold. He would wisely refuse this test, at least in the barrios, choosing Aguila or Poker instead.
Tejo at first glance vaguely resembles a cross between bowling and bean bag toss. (You remember: the game at the county fair where you toss bags underhand at a leaning plywood board that has circular holes cut into it.) There are six "lanes", each consisting of two boxes that lean at a 45-degree angle against opposing walls of the room. The boxes are about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide and 8 inches deep. The do not have a plywood surface. Instead the boxes are filled with mud. The mud has a clay-like consistency and is packed within each box by men with asphalt tampers. In the center of each box is a 10-inch diameter steel ring. The ring is buried in the mud so identifying its exact dimensions is tough, but the job is made somewhat easier because affixed to the top center of the steel ring is a triangular shaped gunpowder bomb about the size of a golf ball. Another bomb is attached to the bottom center of the ring.
The object of the game is to toss your Tejo at the mud from a distance of about 45 feet. If you somehow manage to find the center of the ring you get 6 points. If you hit a bomb, and it explodes, you get three points. If your Tejo is closest to the outside of the ring after everyone has thrown, you score a point. So the old adage "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" is demonstrably false. It also counts in Tejo, though not much. Here's the dilemma. If you try to hit the target center, your Tejo will often bounce off the ring and you will wind up with nothing for your effort (and no points for your team). The second problem is this: if you don't throw the Tejo with a slight Frisbee-friendly wrist snap it won't dig into the clay. It'll just bounce off or slide down the mud wall of the target box. Ricocheting Tejos are the province of rookies. And also score no points.
Once you've selected your "lane" and have been carefully appraised by the tin miners, prostitutes, and grease monkeys at the lane next to yours, you get to choose your Tejo. A Tejo is shaped and looks like a 1950's space ship. It's between 3 and 5 inches in diameter, is made of steel, and weights about half a pound or more in the larger models. Many rookies, surmising from poorly understood high school physics that a heavy tejo will stick in the mud better, choose a monster—the equivalent of a 16-pound bowling ball. Most women choose smaller tejos. I first played the game in the company of my girlfriend's family and was anxious to make a favorable impression so I went with a big-boy Tejo. I figured her sisters—all of whom chose the lightweight variety—were just being demure, non-competitive Latina mujeres. But knowing them, I suspected I was wrong. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw that her four brothers also chose smaller Tejos. This development was troubling, inasmuch as these guys were trash talking and plainly intended to kick ass.
Pretending to have a purpose for my decision, I stuck with my 16 pounder, and felt manly for doing so. It took a full evening of tejo-tossing to recognize the serious error of my ways. Since the game never really ends until one side or the other is too drunk to continue, there's a great deal of tejo tossing to be done. By 2 am I figure I had thrown the damned thing a thousand times. The next morning I could have hung my shoulder from a clothes line.
We divided into two teams of six players each. A couple cases of cold beer were set under each of the primitive wooden "dugout" benches that were set up on either side of our lane. We stared each other down. Trash talk gave way to action. (Let it be said that your author's time playing ultimate Frisbee served him well. Many Friday nights drinking stolen beer in the snow behind the High School were also game savers. North America not to be embarrassed this night). We ate chorizos and arepas and drank vast quantities. By early morning we had emptied our 4 cases of beer and ordered, I believe, at least two more. Compared to the guys playing to our left and right, we were truly lightweights. But we had to suspend play on a number of occasions while one or more of these trabajadores staggered across our lane to the open urinals, wholly oblivious to flying tejos. In the end, the weakest member of our team, dear Dora, whose spaghetti arm couldn't put a tejo in a swimming pool from ten feet if her children's eyes depended on it, fired an amazing center ring toss that won the whole evening for the good guys. Well, I say "won", but actually the shot was so unexpected and astounding that we spontaneously hoisted our heroine onto our shoulders and paraded drunkenly out into the street. Worst sport indeed.