BOGOTA, Colombia — After a perfect release, Patricia Mendivelso watches the metal disk hang in the air and hit its mark — a small explosive. She coolly pumps her fist as the small boom causes the crowd to roar.
Generations of Colombian men have played tejo, the country’s curious national sport, in which competitors, often drunkenly, lob disks at boxes filled with mud, hoping to strike a paper triangle stuffed with gunpowder 60 feet away.
Now, as this traditionally macho game becomes more mainstream, women such as Mendivelso are taking it on.
“A lot of people drink beer for fun, for a distraction when they play,” she said. “But if we’re going to be serious athletes, we have to act like it.”
Mendivelso represents the tejo league from the central Colombian state of Boyaca, the sport’s birthplace and mecca. Boyaca’s ancient Muisca people had been throwing disks, also called tejos, in the mountains for centuries when Spanish settlers arrived and added the gunpowder triangles, called mechas, and an element of precision to the game.
According to lore, Catholic missionaries told a Muisca prince that he would have to leave polygamy to convert to Christianity. At a loss for how to choose a wife, the prince held a tejo tournament and married the champion.
Tejo has since permeated Colombian life. Businessmen in tailored suits and day laborers play and quaff beers on the dozens of courts in Bogota. The sport is taught alongside soccer in elementary schools in Boyaca, and university students there study what constitutes perfect throwing form. But few women have joined in.
“Tejo is the game of the people,” said Edilberto Mariño, vice president of Boyaca’s tejo league. “But women have stayed away for a long time because it’s been all about men getting drunk.”
Thanks to enthusiasts like Mariño, the Colombian government decreed tejo Colombia’s official national sport in 2000. After that, it flooded the marks of a mainstream sport: line officials, an 80-page rule book, uniforms and prize money. A hymn extolling the sport’s role in keeping Colombians together follows the national anthem to kick off every tournament.
In the tejo world, Mendivelso is a superstar. Competing against mostly middle-aged women, the 26-year-old already has three national titles.
“But the thing is, it’s taken a lot of time and practice to get here,” she said.
Boyaca’s team commutes daily from all over the mountainous state to train in the state capital and team headquarters, Tunja. Once there, its weekly training plan includes 20-minute morning jogs, hour-long stints at the gym and two-hour pool workouts for recovery, in addition to two to three hours of throwing drills daily.
“There is no perfect build we’re looking for in a tejo player,” said the team’s coach, Clara Sanabria. “We’re looking for women who are in good shape, because to be good, the sport requires it.”
Tournaments pit two- and four-member teams or individual players against one another, each taking turns to throw four tejos. Top points go to those who explode the mecha while sticking the tejo inside the box’s center ring. Women are allowed to throw from two feet closer, but these days, most play from the men’s line.
At the national championship in Bogota last month, the women from Boyaca went head to head against a dozen women’s teams from around the country and took first place in the four-person team event.
As nationally ranked athletes, the Boyaca women attended a youth rally in Turmeque, the town where the game was born, to drum up support for the sport, especially among girls. At 19, the team’s youngest member, Carolina Naranjo, said she hopes girls will grow up in a different culture of tejo than she did.
“I think [machismo] used to be a problem in the past, and I remember boys thought it was funny I played when I was younger,” Naranjo said. “I chose to play because it’s different.”
Mendivelso’s tejo career began as many men’s do. When she was young, she tagged along with brothers, uncles and grandfather to toss tejos.
Despite the newly elevated status of tejo and its female players, prize money is paltry, often just enough to cover travel expenses. So, Mendivelso said, she will retire after next year.
“I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do with the sport,” she said. “I don’t have any plans just yet — probably tend to family things and maybe go back to school. You know, adjust to life after tejo.”