'Indigenous Olympics' in Brazil: Competition meets awareness

Story highlights

  • First World Indigenous Games staged in Brazil
  • Competitors from New Zealand to Canada met in Palmas

Palmas, Brazil (CNN)From the Amazon to the shores of New Zealand, 2,000 competitors converged on the frontier city of Palmas for the first World Indigenous Games.

Over the course of nine days they competed in an array of traditional sports such as archery, log-carrying and tug-of-war. But they also took plenty of time to talk politics and indigenous rights.
    "We're distant from other cultures of the world, but this gives us a chance to mingle with the rest of the indigenous peoples from all over the place," said Maori athlete Marino Thompson.
    The opening ceremony started with athletes shooting arcs of fire with their bows and arrows to light the symbolic torch at an event widely dubbed the "Indigenous Olympics" -- just nine months before the 2016 Olympic Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro.
    Tribes from two dozen countries paraded around the purpose-built stadium, displaying feathered headdresses, velvet robes and, despite the sweltering heat, Arctic furs.
    World's first 'Indigenous Olympics' kicks off in Brazil
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    'This is about traditions'

    The games themselves were plagued by disorganization and late starts, but participants each got an opportunity to showcase their sporting prowess and traditions.
    Brazil excelled in the log relay, passing 100-kilo (220-pound) logs from shoulder to shoulder as they raced around the stadium.
    Mongolia was strong in archery and New Zealand in spear-throwing.
    Heavily built Maori warriors were also the tug-of-war favorites, although they lost a major competition to the Brazilian Bacairis tribe.
    But in Palmas, a city straddling the Amazon River basin and Brazil's new agricultural frontier, it really wasn't just about winning.
    "This is about traditions," said Carlos Terena, executive director of the Games. "Most of the competitions don't have referees. There is no such thing as doping here."
    For some it was a chance to showcase unique sports, such as Mixteca ball from southern Mexico.
    There was plenty of traditional dancing and even a beauty contest. Most of the events took place after the sweltering sun had set.
    It was also a stage for protests. But in the spirit of the games, compromise was usually sought.

    President booed and heckled

    When some Brazilian tribes marched on the stadium because they had been excluded from the opening ceremony, they were eventually given seats.
    The dozens of indigenous artisans who set up impromptu stands to sell their handicrafts outside the event were eventually allowed into the official hall.
    Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff turned out for the opening ceremony but was booed and heckled by activists who say the country's tribes face continuous threats from illegal logging, ranching and National Congress influenced by the powerful agribusiness lobby.
    "It's great to honor Indigenous Games," said Magaga Pataxo, a leader of the Pataxo tribe. "But you can't ignore the problems, especially when it comes to land. We are going to make sure they aren't ignored."
    But for most of those participating, competition was the reason they were there and the biggest cheer came when athletes learned a second Games -- in Canada in 2017.