Monday, August 19, 2013

The appropriation of victories, and their role in re-knitting the social contract

Nairo Quintana is welcomed by the town of Tunja after his Tour de France success (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)

As Martin Ramirez crossed the finish line of the last stage at the 1984 Dauphiné Libéré, he knew he'd won the race. He was an amateur and only 24 years old. The magnitude of his accomplishment didn't hit him at first. But its importance was made clear very soon after. As he stood by the finish line, a Colombian journalist handed him a phone with an long cord (which ran all the way into a local business, and was how the radio journalist had been doing his live broadcast). On the other end of the line was Colombian president Belisario Betancur. This was the first time that cycling had received such attention from Colombia's president. Ramirez was so excited, that he didn't know what to make of the call, and remembers the following,

"At one point the president asked me what I would like most at that very moment. Without even thinking of it, I said I wanted to hear our national anthem. I felt more Colombian than ever, I was so happy, so proud. So they played it for me."

But the joy didn't really last. Ramirez was promised many things by any number of politicians, including a free apartment (which didn't turn out to be free at all, but merely the chance to put down a down payment, and start making payments on an apartment he couldn't realistically afford). But Ramirez, a man of little means at the time, one who had focused his entire life on cycling. Through that experience, he learned a lesson very quickly,

"When you win something like that, people in Colombia come out of nowhere, offering you all kinds of things, just to get publicity, to get press for politicians…all they're doing is taking advantage of you, and of the situation."

Martin Ramirez

A matter of class
This sometimes uncomfortable relationship, that of sports and politics, is by no means unique to Colombia. In just about every country, politicians in the highest posts will often use sport as a way of relating to the people, often with amazingly transparent and downright amusing results. Sport is tied into nationalist pride, regional identity and countless other sentiments that are easy to co-opt by any number of people. Then there's the fact that some politicians are actually passionate about a sport or a team, which only helps humanize them further in the eyes of those they want to win over.

But in Colombia, there's a deeper, more engrained meaning to this relationship of sport and the masses. This is largely because Colombia is incredibly class conscious, and such exchanges happen across class divisions which so obviously define interactions. In fact, as late as the 1980s, social scientists had trouble defining social class, and its meaning in Colombia since it's so deeply embedded in our culture, that it's been difficult to separate it from its other aspects in Colombian life. According to many in Colombia, this is a seemingly hardwired component that is left over from sixteenth century Spanish rule, which today is best exemplified by official social strata divisions that were first outlined in a 1994 law. That law created official social classes states based on income that are "an instrument that allows a municipality or district to classify its population in distinct groups or strata with similar social and economic characteristics". To be fair, this law was passed as a way of identifying people who needed government subsidies, as well as percentages to be paid when getting medical attention through the governments socialized healthcare system. They do not exist as a way of actively discriminating against citizens. Nevertheless, it's an interesting artifact of (I feel) Colombia's highly class conscious reality.

Nairo Quintana is welcomed in Bogota (Photo: El Colombiano)

Representatives of the people
Last week, I sat looking at my computer screen for nearly two hours, watching a live broadcast of Nairo Quintana's arrival to Colombia, as well as the subsequent parade into the Presidential Palace that followed (okay, I was multi-tasking at times, I admit). During some moments, thousands lined the streets and highway overpasses, dumping flower petals onto the double-decker bus that carried Quintana and his family. As the convoy reached the city center, the number of people increased dramatically, as did the number of cyclists and police motorcycles that followed the bus. It was an amazing display from a city and a country that love the sport. And I have to admit that at times, despite the awful commentator, I became emotional. I recognized the streets, the intersections, and the number of people out on the was an amazing thing to be watching live.

Nairo Quintana is welcomed in Bogota (Photo: El Tiempo)
Nairo Quintana is awareded the Cruz De Boyaca (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)

The day ended with Quintana being honored by the president, as he was awarded the Cruz De Boyaca (the highest honor that the Colombian government can give), an honor that began when Colombia's liberator Simon Bolivar gave that medal to combatants who helped in the fight for Colombia's independence. Noteworthy recipients of the prize include: Tony Blair, Lucho Herrera, Rigoberto Uran, Maria Pajon, though the list is largely made up of politicians, industrialists and military leaders. The ceremony included Colombian cyclists from the past like Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra, Santiago Botero, and Cochise Rodriguez.

Quintana then went on to have a similarly impressive reception in the town where he now lives, Tunja in the department of Boyaca (you can read about Boyaca's rich cycling heritage here). He arrived in a bus that belongs to Colombia's continental Movistar team, who lent their team bus for the occasion. Curiously, Quintana waved to fans through the windshield (since all other windows were obscured, as they are in all team buses), leading to an unusual, almost Pope-mobile effect in the streets of Boyaca. A huge ceremony followed, where politicians, and local leaders spoke, as local heroes Fabio Parra and Mauricio Soler (a close friend to Quintana) were also honored.

Nairo Quintana was welcomed back by the town of Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
Nairo Quintana was welcomed back by the town of Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
Nairo Quintana and Mauricio Soler in Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)

Through all this, all the honors bestowed upon Quintana, I saw a Colombian population that (as always) takes unbelievable pride in sporting accomplishments, in great part because they put us on equal footing with other (larger, richer) nations. But also because such victories do what Colombians often refer to as, "dejar nuestro nombre en alto", an emotion-filled expression that roughly translates to making a nation proud, or actively improving the way Colombia is perceived by others. But through all this, I thought about Martin Ramirez, and his cautious words about the nature of politicians and other leaders at times like this (this is true anywhere, even Ryder Hesjedal shook a few hands and posed with babies after his Giro win). But I also thought about an exchange about this very subject that I had with Matt Rendell, particularly about the meaning of these exchanges in the context of Colombian society.

Cycling in Colombia has always been a sport that mostly attracted the very poor. People that often live in conditions that don't even exist in many other countries. And yet, the sport has attracted presidents and the powerful in one way or another. Colombian politicians always took great interest in cycling and cyclists, more so than politicians even in other poor countries. Did you find this to be unusual in researching your books?
You know, I think you're right. It's a symbolic exchange whereby by the head of the ruling class, i.e. the president, makes a direct communication with the kind of elected representative of the poor people.

Yes, when we saw Lucho Herrera and the president…well, they were two heads of state actually. Each representing a group with unique values and interests to the other. This is more significant in a place like Colombia than in others, because of its social make-up, which is unlike that of the United States.
So it's almost anthropological in that sense, it's a way of re-knitting the social contract.

Video showing Quintana's welcome into Bogota's airport, including interviews with fans. Spanish speakers will no doubt notice the use of the phrase "dejar nuestro nombre en alto."

A perfect representation
Despite all these honors, and outpouring of emotion (or perhaps because of them) by politicians, some in Colombia are crying foul, charging men like Colombia's president with being a lagarto (which literally translates to alligator, but actually refers to an opportunist newcomer, a Johnny-come-lately). And although Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president, has been a long-time cycling fan, it's easy to point out how little the government has done to support men like Quintana (conversely, it's also worth pointing out that the support available is substantial when compared to the days of men like Herrera and Martin Ramirez). Nevertheless, an uncomfortable fact remains unsaid, and that's the uneasy relationship that exists in all societies between the ruling class, and the poorer segments of society where many sporting heroes originate. With victory, they are elevated to the highest status, but some level of class division exists, as it does in every society. Colombia is not completely unique in this regard at all, but those differences are certainly palpable.

But in the end, these victories, as well as the reaction that follows, are a perfect representation of how imperfect and human any nation is. Nations of politicians, of class divisions, of opportunism...but in Colombia's case also one of hard working individuals, of human struggle, of joyous people, and above all (and I hope I'm not being willfully obtuse here), of people who love cycling, and for whom the sport has always remained an embedded part of their everyday reality. ■

You can read my full interview with Martin Ramirez here.
You can read the portion of my interview with Matt Rendell that included this discussion here.

Nairo Quintana arrives in Tunja (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)


I will likely be taking a week off from the blog due to some travel. But I'll be back soon enough.

On the 24th, Team 4-72-Colombia will take on the Tour de l'Avenir (perhaps the most coveted amateur race on the calendar), with a six man team that could very well take an overall win. Remember, this is the team that brought you Henao, Quintana, Atapuma, Duarte and countless others. The team leader will be Chamorro, but they have other options.

The Colorado Pro Cycling Challenge (or whatever it's called) will be hosting Team Colombia this year. Make sure you follow Manual For Speed for daily coverage. Check their site, Instagram and follow them on Twitter here. The race will be shown live on Colombian TV, rare for a race this size. Though there are few opportunities for a team like Colombia to make their presence known in this race, look for them to try their best. Why? The team's budget is set on a year-to-year basis (as all federal spending in Colombia is). This means that the team will have a rare chance to show off to a Colombian TV audience near the end of the season, and around the time that monetary matters for next year are sorted. Sadly, the team will be one man short, such are the realities of a Colombian team, with Colombian riders who can't easily obtain visas.

Last week, I was able to find the answer to one of those questions that humanity has asked since time immemorial. That question is: If Twitter's Race Radio, blogger/rantcaster Cyclocosm and The Economist all mention your blog within the a four hour period or so, and link to it, which of the three will bring you the most visitors? The answer, in order for most visitors to least is (drum roll):

1. Race Radio
2. Cyclocosm
3. The Economist

Reader of the blog Pavel L. sent the photo below my way, to prove that he not only has good taste in cycling jerseys, but also in race numbers. I wholeheartedly approve on both fronts.


  1. Great post, me encantó. You may not know Klaus, Colombia won the Micro Futbol World Cup a couple of years ago, and all members of the team were promised "a house". They are still waiting. I think that as often as you hear "dejar el nombre del pais en alto" (or "dejar los colores patrios bien alto"), you also hear politicians offering our sport legends "una casita"....

  2. Anonymous,
    I had no idea, and yet...why am I not surprised?

  3. Good posting. You should start putting all these blog entries together in a book. I have always wonder about doing a book with all the metrics for each Colombian rider. Bio, stats. ETC I think there is no publication like that yet.

    Also, I would like to see a blog posting about "Pacho Rodriguez" and "Santiago Botero"

  4. SantiEPO Botero????

  5. Daniel,
    I'm working on something with Pacho, but it will likely come out in print first, before it eventually ends up here on the blog. Should be cool. As for Santiago, I have some reservations there, but I did interview him before, have a read:

  6. Hi Klaus,

    Thanks for answering. I understand about Botero and your reservations, I mean we all know what happened on that time for cycling racing. However, I think Botero is a piece of our history because doping or no doping he was one of the legendary Colombians racing in Europe. Plus everybody was doping at that time. Not that I justify doping in fact I would rather see our riders last and clean than first and doped.

    Anyhow thanks I am looking forward to read the piece with Pacho because I think he has not been given the right credit for his victories. :-)

  7. No problem Daniel.
    Botero's rise in the sport, and how it happened (and just how quickly) was simply amazing. His raw talent and ability are simply undeniable. Having said that, interviewing him and many others from that time is often fruitless. There's a huge elephant in the room, they won't talk about it...and I agree that there's more to talk about than that, but the whole thing feels like more of a charade than normal. Two people talking, both know the deal, and yet it's not spoken about. Very odd indeed.

    As for Pacho, he's simply a great guy. I organized a ride with him in NY two years ago, and have gotten to know him better since. A great talent, a great guy, and some amazing stories to tell. Like Martin Ramirez, he's often forgotten due to the likes of Parra and Herrera, which is too bad.

  8. Thank you for another great post. I have to tell you what a strange and wonderful world you are helping to open up to those of us, well, me, who never gave Colombia a second thought beyond Juan Valdez in the 1980s. Or was it 70s. Thanks to my fan worship of a few Colombian riders, all of whom are fascinating to me, I'm working hard to learn all I can and even learn the language though heavens Spanish is pretty hard and conjugating verbs makes me sleepy. I appreciate your honesty and your toughing out the critics. I hope they have no influence on you and you keep speaking your truth.

  9. Bonnie,
    Your message cheers me up. Thank you for the kind words!


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