Being a Good Sport in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution

Something you wouldn’t see at the Olympics: Teams of laughing and cheering teenagers and young adults throwing water-filled-condoms at each other, catching them in towels held by one person on each corner, as rain drenches the condom covered ground.
"Gold for the Sports Revolution"

Something you wouldn’t see at the Olympics: Teams of laughing and cheering teenagers and young adults throwing water-filled-condoms at each other, catching them in towels held by one person on each corner, as rain drenches the condom covered ground.

This was one of the activities a Cuban-sports instructor, working through Barrio Adentro Sport, organised for the youth at an National Institute of Youth (INJ) training camp.

No one bothered to keep score, and despite the rain, team after team (of both men and women) took the loosing team’s place with excitement.

If you wanted, you could have played ‘spot the human values’: cooperation, comradeship, health, de-taboo-ization of condoms, enjoyment of company and of the environment, enjoyment for the sake of it.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, athletes that have been bought by rich countries from other parts of the world, then trained, scientifically sculptured and nutritioned into 100m sprint experts who selfishly dedicate their lives to one small goal, one medal, one day or more of fame, under the guise of ‘doing it for their country,’ without actually improving any aspect of society except perhaps bringing back with them, as they pose for the gaggle of photographers at their airport, a tad of irrational nationalist pride, compete during two of the most expensive weeks ever.

And, you cannot see the glorious night sky, nor the ancient streets and bone deep intense culture of Beijing for the advertising. ‘Humanity’ as some people call the Olympics, is merchandised and sponsored out, with physical space in Beijing and time space on TV filled to the hilt with advertising, souvenirs, T-shirts, toys, and collectables, and everything else in life that is not creative or useful.
(This Olympics non-sponsor advertising was banned and $2.7 billion were spent on outdoor and billboard advertising. Development in preparation for the games cost China $40 billion in public money and 300,000 people their homes. I remember the Sydney Olympics, when homeless people were towed away for the period- and replaced by flowerpots to make Sydney pretty to the world.)

And there’s what most commercial channels decided to ignore- the residents who protested against their homes being demolished and were imprisoned and tortured. Some disappeared. There is the repression of dissent. During the 2000 Olympics the New South Wales Government increased the powers of the police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and for the first time the military were deployed against domestic unrest—mainly to prevent indigenous people from protesting.

George Orwell described the Olympics as ‘war minus the shooting’ (although there are actually 15 shooting events these days) and since when was war ever played on a level field? Roughly the same six or so countries lead the medal tally every time- the US, China, Russia, Germany, France, and Australia. It’s boring. It reminds me of rich kids buying their way into University, or big school bullies. Three cheers for powerful countries beating the little guys. And well, India has about as many people as China, but most of them are too worried about getting work and eating to be playing sport all day.

When you take out the pretty slogans the Olympics is a nationalist, money making fest that doesn’t even attempt to serve any social function in a world that has a long way to go towards being just.

Having said all that, sports is one of those aspects of life, like love, or dancing, or the street, or music and art, which can either be totally commercialized and eliticized or that can be beneficial to society and human development, and beautiful.

Playing and moving about, at any age, is human. But under capitalism ‘play’ is turned into heavy, serious, profitable, ‘sport’. Just as culture is turned into DVDs and souvenirs, shared music and dancing is turned into painted, digitally edited superstars, and art is tucked away in museums and sold at inaccessible prices. We go from collective participation, to 99.9% passive spectators or audience, under capitalism.

Revolution and socialism, however, are about participation, and not competition. So how far has Venezuela come in revolutionizing sport, turning it instead, into an activity that brings people together, raises collective health, and helps us appreciate our environment?

Socialized sport has its place in the Bolivarian Revolution’s general aim of improving people’s economic, social, cultural and participatory life.
And whilst a lot of ‘developed’ countries are willing to spend enormous amounts of their tax revenues on creating elite athletes, Venezuela has been spending its money on social programs both within the country and across Latin America.

Just one of its social programs is making sport accessible and beneficial to people in all corners of the country, of all ages, genders, and physical capacity.

The Venezuelan government’s policy on sports comes from the constitution which says, in summary, that everyone has a right to sport and recreation as activities that benefit the quality of life of both the individual and the collective. Sport has a fundamental role in the formation of both children and teenagers. Its teaching is obligatory in all levels of public and private education.

This policy was elaborated on under the ‘National Bolivarian System of Sport’ in 2005 in which, through sports amongst other things, “a new profile of the Venezuelan will try to be obtained, with more discipline and responsibility, that values work, perseverance, credibility, conviction, analysis, and the sporting identity…with a focus on four main programs: performance sports, sports for all, sports installations, and sports in school.”

Money was distributed, and programs set up. For example, included in the sports in school program was a project with a budget of US$1.6 million to transform the curriculum for physical education.

Under sports for all, in 2006, a number of projects were started. US$7 million were assigned to supporting 360 decentralized sporting facilities. Almost US$5 million were assigned to a project of strengthening community and municipal schools sports programs.

The Latin American University of Sports and Physical Education was inaugurated in April 2006 in the state of Cojedes. It forms professionals in planning, training, methodology, management, technology, and recreation, and currently has 14 Cuban professionals and 84 Venezuelan teachers, with 1,500 students, 136 of which are from Central and Latin America.

And using sports as a tool to unite, Latin American Integration has been a priority in Venezuelan sports policy. One current proposal is that the first ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) games with the participation of teams across Latin America. Included in this would be native sports.

Another proposal was the formation of Latin America represented as a block on the International Olympic Committee and similar organizations, so that the interests of the continent may be better represented.

One of the things I love most about Venezuela (and indeed Cuba) is the liveliness of the grandparents. The average capitalist country likes to see older people as surplus waste to be chucked away in under-funded ‘nursing homes.’ Such people, undervalued by society, tend to hide in their homes only to come out on compulsory voting days (in Australia) or for necessary shopping. In contrast, life in socialist countries doesn’t end when you are no longer able to work. It’s just starting.

Sports, being in many ways the direct opposite to sloth-like passive leisure such as TV, has an important social role to play, in getting people up, outside, talking and working with other people, moving around and engaging. Team sports involve a lot of communicating, cooperation, and moral support.

Carlos Ugueto has always liked sports. Now he is 84 years old and he still walks for 40 minutes a day, guaranteeing that he’ll live for many more years.

He participates in Mission Barrio Adentro Sport, an agreement between Venezuela and Cuba that was born on July 31, 2004. It is available to all people, including to pregnant women, those with disabilities, and those recovering from illness who need physical exercise as part of the program. It also sees sports as an important part of preventative medicine, and now has the majority of Venezuelans involved in physical activity. (Barrio Adentro Sport had already gone from attending 1.7 million people (7.7% of the population) in 2003 to 9 million (34.6% of the population) in 2005.)

Thousands of trained Cubans bring sport into the community, into the streets, parks, schools, and ‘grandparent residentials’ – places for older people to socialize, eat healthy meals, and receive social services. Activities include sports, physical activity, dominoes, chess, dance therapy, clubs, physical preparation for pregnant women, and special days such as the ‘Day of Walking’.

“[There is] nothing better than physical exercise to prevent cardiovascular accidents…including for mental health, for the health of the family, good blood circulation which brings oxygen to the brain, for study, to complement the educational effort that we are doing…we need to live more and better every day,“ said Chavez at the mission’s inauguration.

There have been many amazing stories, such as that of Yolanda Ramirez de Arteaga, who one year ago presented with thrombosis in her left arm and today is almost recovered. She started her rehabilitation in the “grandparents club” in her local community, managing to recover the mobility of the arm.

In another community, Zoraida Cruz de Briceno is a member of a club “Happiness.” “I’m 62 years old and I want to participate in this sporting and musical event because I like to stay energetic,” she says.

“We do gym, we paint, we sing and we also go on long hikes, which I like so much.”

Globally, under capitalism, there is still a class divide in sports, where the sports that are played easily and cheaply are played by the masses and other sports like golf, tennis, horse riding, and car sports are limited to the upper class. Such a divide still heavily applies to Venezuela, which has not yet thrown off the market chains and is affected by global trends.

The elitist idea of the professional sportsperson, of high performance, competitive and marketable sport, still dominates.

75% of the budget, according to Pedro García Avendaño, coordinator of the Unit of Research of Human Performance-Sport and Health, is still spent on 1,000 high performance sportspeople. This amounts to approximately US$230 million per year.

Venezuela sent 109 people to compete in the Olympics, a record amount and more than double the 48 sent last time to Athens. Dalia Contreras won the only (bronze) medal for Venezuela, in Tae-kwon-do.

And although in the pub on Friday night, myself and a friend couldn’t help getting a bit excited as Brazil played the US in volleyball, there hasn’t been the kind of hype here around the Olympics that I am used to in Australia.

Coverage on the government channel has been very even, complementing any country or competitor who did well and not focusing only on Venezuela. And of course without any product advertising during the breaks (just a few ads encouraging people to register to vote, a few for government projects, and one about ‘gold in revolution’ by the Ministry of Sport).

On Alo Presidente on Sunday, Alexandra Benitez, who represented Venezuela in fencing in the Olympics, speaking on behalf of the other athletes, said, “We appreciate all the support that we’ve been given…for national sports I would suggest that the leadership really know sports, for the responsibility of directing sports should be in the hands of sports people and ex-sports people.”

It was only in 1935, that the Venezuelan Olympic Association was formed (now the Venezuelan Olympic Committee-VOC). “The main reason for its formation was that our sport adapt to the international requirements,” says Avendaño. Many national and local associations had to adjust their rules and regulations to meet these new requirements and in this way foreign interests continued their domination of Venezuelan sports and in what was called the initiation of “modern sports” by some.

In the same way that the English brought cricket to many of its colonies, using it as a tool of domination, various sports arrived in South and Central America from Europe and then the US, quickly replacing traditional culture. Venezuela’s entry into ‘international’ sports further cemented this.

“We are ready to break with this imposed model of domination and organize our sports independently, with decisions that respond to the national interest,” Avendaño added.

He argues, “It’s important to think about the contribution that (sports) has in the construction of the new person.”

“We want a sports that makes and reproduces healthy people who are useful for the country.”

One positive feeling one does get from watching the Olympics is that humans are capable of amazing strength, dedication to a cause, sustained, long term effort, and of beating adversity. And since individual humans can do that, who says we can’t collectively beat the greater global challenges and organize a better, more just, sustainable and humane world; the ultimate cause and achievement.