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Popular Colombian Sport Features Explosions and Lots of Beer

July 1, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ It’s a uniquely Colombian game _ you hurl a metal disc at little packets of gunpowder and pray for a deafening explosion. Have a case of beer on hand, since the loser always pays.

The sport is ``tejo,″ a centuries-old pastime with players across Colombia, from the sweltering Amazon jungles in the south to the dry plains that border the Caribbean coast.

It’s hugely popular among peasants. Parts of rural Colombia are sprinkled with signs beckoning passersby to roadside dirt strips for a round of tejo, along with beer or aguardiente, the local firewater.

Alcohol-free tournaments are played in special coliseums. Even U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette plans to install a tejo strip on the spacious grounds of his home in Bogota.

``Everybody here plays,″ says Mayor Jose Antonio Moreno of Turmeque, a town north of Bogota where the game took root even before Spanish explorers arrived in the sixteenth century.

``It’s a way to distract yourself instead of sitting in a bar drinking beer. Granted, they do drink a lot while they play.″

The idea is similar to horseshoes _ hit a target with an object. In tejo, named after the two- or three-pound throwing disc, players aim with underarm lobs at four pink, triangular packets of gunpowder embedded in the center of a platform of clay.

Players score three points if they hit a charge, six if the tejo lands in the few square inches of space between the gunpowder packets, and nine if it hits a charge and lands in the space.

If there are no hits, it’s one point for the tejo closest to the charges. Games usually go to 27 points.

The boom of a successful throw, followed by wild cheers, echoes across otherwise tranquil farming valleys on many a Sunday afternoon around Bogota. The tejo strips _ 60 feet is the tournament length _ are open-air or sheltered by roofs of sheet metal.

Largely confined to the working classes, tejo was once a game of Indian royalty who played with gold discs. Spanish colonizers, naturally, stole the gold discs and replaced them with iron ones. It is also believed that they introduced the gunpowder charge as a target.

Local lore tells of an Indian chief who wanted to become Roman Catholic. To conform, he made his seven wives play tejo and abandoned all but the winner.

The game has spread to Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. Colombians in Miami play with a charge that churns out more smoke but less explosion, in keeping with stricter U.S. safety rules.

Colombia’s national tejo federation has a $30,000 budget, 28 leagues and 18,000 registered members.

The staff and members of Bogota’s posh Gun Club, where businessmen recline in drawing rooms or the sauna, play tejo against each other every Christmas. The lower-income staff, reared on the game, always win.

Some rural players, addled by beer, have played for 12 hours straight until early morning. The alcohol often sharpens their aim.

Despite the booze, flying metal and explosions, fans say fights and injuries are rare.

``I see more violence in soccer, when a player thumps a referee,″ said Jose Vicente Castro, president of the tejo federation. ``A tejo could be a dangerous weapon, but there’s rarely a problem.″

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