The Tokyo 2020 Olympics kicked off on July 23. At first I did not pay much attention: the pandemic and its consequences had knocked my spirits. But once I started following the Venezuelan athletes’ performances it was impossible to be unmoved.
I realized that those kids were a reflection of the country, in a very broad sense. It was as if they were a window into present-day Venezuela. With a neverending crisis and a brutal blockade, these stories of perseverance and success resonate more than under normal circumstances.
However, with such a polarized and politicized country, some of the worst Venezuelan features also reared their ugly heads.
Julio Mayora encapsulates a lot about this country. The humble young man secured the country’s first silver medal and dedicated it to former President Hugo Chávez on his 67th birthday. Why? Because when he was 12 he saw Chávez on TV with a group of athletes and right then and there he knew what he wanted to become: a weightlifter, carrying the Venezuelan flag and winning Olympic medals.
Julio and lots of other youngsters would not have found their calling in life without Chávez’s inspirational words. In many cases they might have gone astray. It was a very emotional, heartfelt gratitude that he expressed in the moment, though some could not understand it.
Soon after came Keydomar Valenilla’s silver, also in weightlifting. This kid comes from the very barrio that for months had to deal with armed gang violence and police operations. He showed that this environment can also produce healthy, talented people.
Then came BMX rider Daniel Dhers, a member of Caracas’ middle class who left for Argentina and later for the US at a very young age. And though he’s had great success, he never considered representing the US in any competition.
“I became a US citizen years ago and at some point there was talk of me representing the US and not Venezuela. But I identify as Venezuelan, you see how I haven’t lost my accent. I didn’t want to give up on my identity. Something I was taught from an early age was to remember where I come from,” Dhers explained after winning silver.
What else is to be said? Dhers, who surely opposes the government, nonetheless talked to Maduro on the phone because he knows that’s protocol. During the chat he called Maduro “brother” and not “president,” because why not? Because that’s the way he is, and perhaps he wished to avoid unnecessary controversy. More importantly, he pledged to support any efforts to improve sports for the youth in the country.
Last but not least, we had an absolutely historic gold from Yulimar Rojas. We are talking about a young woman who breaks the norm in more ways than one: she comes from deep poverty, a black woman who is also a lesbian and openly Chavista. She is on the record saying that “Hugo Chávez was the pillar that took sports to the grassroots, allowing kids to see its importance.”
She says so because she knows what she’s talking about. Venezuela’s “Golden Generation” is not a myth or an accident. Despite all the setbacks, kids from humble backgrounds are reaching these heights because Chávez prioritized paying back the “social debt.”
There were also cases of athletes who did not secure medals but did win over our hearts, like shot putter Ahymara Espinoza. The pandemic and a lack of resources forced her to abandon her preparation in Slovenia. With no support from the government, she went on training on her own while making a living as a taxi driver and delivering liquor. She also embodies Venezuela — the way we have to face and overcome all sorts of obstacles, even if later one powerful group or another wants to use us as a weapon or take credit for it.
On the other side of the spectrum there are cases like marathon swimmer Paola Pérez, who finished 20th in her competition. She speaks out against Maduro whenever she gets the chance and it’s fine, it’s within her rights to do so. A few days ago she recalled that the government did not keep its promise of assigning her family a house after the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Still, the other “Olympic sport” these days has been displayed by mortals whose only talent is spouting venom on social media. People will despise impressive feats just because they were achieved by Chavistas. Sometimes it’s not enough that athletes steer clear of politics. At the end of the day, these hate-fille people are the issue, not the athletes.
This group chastises Mayora for dedicating his medal to Chávez, or Yulimar for praising policies that took sports to the grassroots. They hate Dhers just for talking to Maduro on the phone. But they conveniently forget that in the past, even during economic and social crises, the governments of Caldera, Carlos Andrés Pérez, Jaime Lusinchi and Rómulo Betancourt (right-wing presidents in the second half of the century) also relished sports honors, medals and trophies. Likewise, in the US the champions from major sports leagues have a customary White House visit and photo op with the president, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
All in all, it’s a small sector that has lost all ability to be happy for others, to see them as part of the same collective under the same flag and singing the same national anthem. Their prejudices are always close to the surface. They’re not many, though they make a lot of noise.
Most of us Venezuelans are thankful like Mayora, fighters like Keydomar, joyful and proactive like Daniel, rebellious winners like Yulimar, persistent like Ahymara, upfront like Paola. So I thank these guys for reminding me, even amidst all our differences, that I come, we come, from a beautifully vibrant country. And I thank them for the dignity with which they showed it to the whole world.
Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translated by Ricardo Vaz for Venezuelanalysis.