Poised on the starting blocks at the Olympics, the 15 swimmers had good reason to feel apprehensive. But the cause of their nervousness was not the race itself – it was the piranhas, anacondas and crocodiles lurking in the turbid waters below.
This is the Amazon Olympics, an annual sporting event for indigenous tribes in this isolated region along the borders of Colombia, Brazil andPeru. Instead of track and field events, however, the competition tests skills and disciplines essential for survival in the jungle: 500 men and women compete in a range of disciplines including, tree-felling, canoe-racing, archery and blowpipe-shooting.
It is a far cry from London 2012’s multimillion-pound arenas: the canoes are hand-carved from tree trunks, the bows fashioned from branches, In one event, men and women wield two-metre blowpipes to fire wooden darts at a target. In another event, contestants with axes raced to reduce tree trunks to kindling.
The swimming events all take place in the murky waters of the Loretoyaco river, a tributary of the Amazon. Waiting for her 100m freestyle race, Lina Castro, a 20-year-old member of the Tikun indigenous community, gazed into the water and considered the hazards. “When the race is about to start I need to be calm and not think about all the things that live in the river,” she said.
Teams from two dozen villages and towns fight for a cash prize of £1,000, but tribal elders say the main purpose of the games is to help safeguard ancient traditions. “These games are a way of preserving our culture,” said Olga Bastos, an indigenous leader, who also competed in the bow and arrow and blowpipe events.
Hanging over the event is the fear that these communities are losing their identities. Even in the tiny town of Puerto Narino – only accessible by river – indigenous teenagers dress in skinny jeans and listen to American dance music and reggaeton. Most can’t speak the indigenous languages, only Spanish.
“The youngsters are taking outside influences, the way they dress, how they comb their hair and the music they listen to,” said Puerto Narino resident William Fernandez. He fears that by losing the skills of hunting, the younger generation is losing something much larger – a connection to the surrounding rainforests.
“The jungle is our natural home. It’s our mother, providing everything we need to eat and our whole way of life.”