Thursday, August 16, 2012

The final podium at the 1985 Tour de France, and the weight of conditional adoration

Fabio Parra (white jersey) and Lucho Herrera (king of the mountains) on the final podium presentation at the Tour de France in 1985. Notice the woman in the white gown who looks like she's about to marry one of the riders. But more importantly, notice Herrera's unwillingness to let Hinault stand in front of him. 

After watching this video, and smiling about Herrera keeping Hinault from getting in front of him (if only briefly), I thought about recent interviews that Lucho Herrera has given. In those interviews he mentions that he remains thankful for how people treat him because of his victories, and that he understands their enthusiasm. But at the same time, he's always been weary of the reverential treatment. A man of few words, Herrera recounted that one difficult part of his kidnapping was that his captors wanted him to talk about every stage he ever rode at the Tour, as well as his victory at the Vuelta. "I never missed a single stage that you raced in!" said one of his captors. But oddly enough, it wasn't so much the hypocrisy that Herrera found troubling (that a kidnapper would admire him and ask him to stay up telling stories), he just minded the level and intensity of the attention, and the endless requests for stories from gun-toting captors. It was, in a sense, a greatly amplified version of what he'd experienced for much of his life.

Herrera's good friend Alvaro Garcia, one of the few men to have ever become close to the cycling legend, recently told the newspaper El Colombiano that if Lucho could somehow wear a huge Mexican sombrero to cover up his face without calling more attention to himself (to keep people from greeting him and recognizing him) he would happily wear one. This may sound antisocial on Herrera's part, but how could he not be weary of a relationship that is so shallow but so seemingly ardent, which is what complete strangers have with him? Why not be cautious about the fact that someone you've never met (me) can assign meaning and derive joy from something as minute as the way you stood on a podium nearly thirty years ago?

Furthermore, what happens when a stranger, any stranger, stops deriving that  joy from your decisions or actions, and instead finds dissatisfaction? What about those who feel so invested in someone they've never met, that they then feel personally wronged or cheated by their actions? 

If fans squint a bit in disbelief at the accomplishments of cyclists these days, is it not understandable that they might do the same back to fans, albeit for different reasons?

I spoke to Henry Cardenas about this and he readily agreed. The wins were great, he said, but when his Cafe De Colombia team was unable to win at will (which many thought they could realistically do), riders were heckled, taunted and insults were screamed out at them during races. The same happened during training rides, and even in their personal lives. Children insulted them, as their parents looked on proudly. Just as their lives had been turned upside down by success, now the opposite had happened—not because of some catastrophic failure on their part mind you—but simply because they did not achieve the results that others thought they were capable of.

This fickle devotion reminds me of the documentary Hoop Dreams. In what is likely the film's most poignant moment, one of the two young men that the film follows (William Gates) speaks about the ephemeral nature of the adoration that sports can bring on. He gains clarity in the midst of an environment where everyone not only wanted, but also expected and relied on him to make it to the NBA.

But I suppose that in the long run, all of this does little to diminish or change the meaning of victory to an entire nation. And therein lies the issue that Herrera has encountered so many times, and is perhaps the reason why I still take minimal pleasure in how he stood atop that podium in 1985. Because to Colombians, whether anyone agrees with it or not, sporting victory has greater meaning than it does in most other places. It's irrational, and potentially troublesome for those involved. But when I see a picture of the parade for Colombia's Olympic medalists (minus Rigoberto Uran, who is in Spain racing) in the streets of Bogota yesterday, I admit that I have to smile. I just hope that these individuals are also loved, and respected in defeat.


  1. As a boy I was always shocked when I would go to Yankee stadium and see people boo or heckle our home team if a player wasn't performing well. I always thought it was even more important to rally or give encouragement when we were down.

  2. Reminds me of three people I admire. Charles A. Lindbergh, Niel Armstrong and Neil Peart. None want/wanted anything to do with the media and hoopla and fans and stuff. Good for them.

    Also, how many buses do you think the US would need to fit all their Olympic medalists?

    Also,I come from a culture where if my team is sucking I'll let them know. They owe their fans that, because in some Latin American and Eastern European countries fans actually own the teams. In Argentina, players have been attacked by fans for sucking. I say, if you can't take the heat, get out of the cocina.
    Of course, here Yankees fans will let an asshole with a Boston hat walk into their home and disrespect their team. I've seen it can't believe it. I told my friend, a supposed Yankee fan, to do something about it. "This jerk is in YOUR house, and you'll let him do whatever?" - "Not worth it, I don't wanna get thrown out." Dude, the usher that throws him out should be as ashamed as my friend. "Die hard" fans in the US are a joke. Sorry. I wouldn't call myself a "hardcore fan" or a "die hard" fan of anything I'm not willing to fight or get arrested for. That's why these days, I'm just a fan, but I busted heads and got my ass handed to me in many stadiums. Anyway, my gf told me I couldn't get in fights anymore.


  3. Great article Klaus! We Colombians are definitely a fickle bunch when it comes to our sports' heroes. On the subject of conditional adoration, the clearest example of this was definitely the 1993-1994 national football team:

    '93: after the famous 5-0 against Argentina, the team could do no wrong. We were going to be world champions! Action figures were made out of each one of team's players! We came up with freakin' Max Caiman as the team pet! Our first round opponents were going to be a cakewalk!

    '94: team fails at world cup, everybody accuses them of being lazy and not worthy of representing the country, and poor Andres Escobar, quite possibly the best center-back the country ever had and a true gentleman, was murdered because of his own goal against the US that cost gangsters to lose a ton of money on bets (Nevermind that the US outplayed us handily and even almost scored on an absurdly awesome chilena by Marcelo Balboa)

    Probably a good thing that cycling wasn't much of betting sport, at least as far as I know...

    1. regarding betting on cycling, I just remembered that bit on Matt Rendell's "King of the mountains" book about Pablo Escobar and his private velodrome...

  4. Christian,
    Ugh...Escobar's story is a rough one for sure. I've written about it before, and even posted the trailer to the "Two Escobars" documentary. We Colombians do suffer from it, but I think the whole relationship is odd everywhere. I say this in the context of people saying they are personally let down by so and so for doping. Sad, angry...I get some of those emotions even if I don't share them...but "personally let down"? Yikes. It's that type of intensity that made think that perhaps the athletes should also look at fans and question their sanity.


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