Do Bachaqueros take Olympic Medals?

As the Rio Olympics close, Venezuela's sportsmen and women did as well as they've ever done...that is to say, still not great.

After 16 exciting days, the Games of the XXXI Olympiad came to a close in Rio de Janeiro last night. And just like four years ago, it’s time for Caracas Chronicles to review how Venezuelan athletes fared in Brazil.

Venezuela got three shiny medals at Rio 2016: one silver (Yulimar Rojas in women’s triple jump) and two bronzes (Stephany Hernandez in women’s BMX cycling and Yoel Finol in men’s flyweight boxing).

The overall performance ties with Los Angeles 1984 as our best Olympic effort ever. However, it’s not that much of a “golden generation” if you return home without winning any gold medal.

At one medal for every 10.3 million inhabitants, Venezuela was 68th worldwide in Medals-per-Capita: ahead of Argentina, Brazil and even countries like Ethiopia, which do great in the track but are full of people. Hell, we even have more medals per capita than China.

Not that Nicolas Maduro and the government are complaining. Quite the opposite. The Wall Street Journal’s Venezuelan correspondent Anatoly Kurmanaev has piles on the details:

Desperate for good news amid an economic collapse, Venezuela’s socialist government is boasting about becoming a sporting superpower during the Olympics, with President Nicolas Maduro crowing about the success of a “Generation of Gold.”

Throughout the Olympics, Maduro and his ministers have talked about the inspirational success of the country’s athletes, made possible only thanks to the country’s Socialist Revolution…

Yet, the disappointing results have not stopped them from claiming the athletes’ success as the Revolution’s. Take the case of silver medalist Yulimar Rojas, who unwillingly became part of the political tug-of-war we’re living in. Exhibit A: State broadcaster TVes painful interview with Rojas.

But wait, there’s more. I’ll present you Exhibit B, again from Kurmanaev’s great report.

Both sides of the country immediately tried to claim as their own Rojas, a 20-year-old athlete from a shantytown in eastern Venezuela who became an instant national celebrity this week.

“We gave her all the support in the world and the best trainers, all thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution and the Commander Chavez,” said Diosdado Cabello, Vice President of the ruling United Socialist Party.

The head of the opposition-controlled congress, Henry Ramos, responded by thanking Rojas for “raising across the world the good image of Venezuela, which this regime has been trying to destroy for 17 years.”

The fact is that Rojas has been living and training in Spain for the past two years, according to a senior sport official from her native Anzoategui state, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

Interestingly enough, some of the biggest flops from the Venezuelan delegation came from two open supporters of the government: One, Ruben Limardo, not only 2012 Olympic gold medallist and Rio 2016 flagbearer but also a PSUV candidate in last year’s legislative elections for Bolivar State. All his hopes to win a consecutive second gold medal ended up right in the 1st round of the individual men’s epée. At least, he got a Olympic Diploma after finishing eighth in the men’s team epée (along with fellow fencers Silvio Fernandez, Kelvin Caña and brother Francisco Limardo).

Former Sports Minister Alejandra Benitez did a little bit better in women’s individual sabre, winning her preliminary bout. She lost her subsequent fight. She probably got more public  attention by openly wearing a shirt with the “Chavez’s Eyes” version of the Olympic Rings.

But other Venezuelan athletes have other things in their minds beside competing in the games. Reuters’ correspondent Alexandra Ulmer was also in Rio and spoke with some of them:

Most Venezuelan athletes have kept a low profile in Rio, preferring to focus on performance rather than politics…

In interviews with about a dozen of the athletes, several confessed to have something else on their minds, however: stocking up on food, medicines and other basic goods to take back home.

Beach volleyball player Norisbeth Agudo said family and friends had asked her for medicine and cosmetics while sailor Jose Gutierrez said he wanted to take home medicines.

“That’s not the reason I’m here,” said Gutierrez, who lives in the capital, Caracas.

“I’m here to think about the competition … but of course I use the opportunity to bring home things that we need.”

The overall result is mixed. El Estimulo’s Alexis Correia has a nice recap of both the big surprises and also the letdowns.

In the end, Venezuela got not only three medals but also twelve olympic diplomas. That’s ain’t bad. But just like in the prior Olympics in London and last year’s Pan-Am Games in Toronto, our neighbors Colombia surpassed us handly in Rio. Says who? Counts. Lots of them… all of them.

Colombia got the same number of medals as last tie: eight. But this time they got three golds instead of one, fulfilling their expectations. They got 22 diplomas as well, almost doubling us. Even their delegation (147) was larger than ours (87). In the only count that really matters, Colombia was 23rd while Venezuela tied with Bulgaria in 65th place (they won the same medals as we did).

For me, one of the most powerful images of these games is the fact that two of the three medals won by Venezuelans (Stephany and Yurimar) were in events where Colombians actually got the gold (Mariana Pajon and Caterine Ibargüen). Looks at first as a happy couple of coincidences, but in the larger picture it simply confirms the meteoric rise of Colombia in the global sport stage.

And doesn’t look like this trend will stop soon: Colombia will host the 2017 Bolivarian Games in Santa Marta and the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla the following year (replacing original host Guatemala). They’re considering bidding for the 2023 Pan Am Games too. But they should take things easy. Overconfidence brings disappointment. Just ask the Australians.

The lesson of Rio 2016 is to give our athletes all the support possible. And that means not only to open government cheerleaders or sons of Boliburgueses who just want to have some sporty fun. The help could help hammer thrower Rosa Rodriguez to try and surpass expectations again (she surprised many by making the finals and finishing 10th) or even not forcing some to sell some of their stuff to pay for their training, like the experience of open water swimmer Erwin Maldonado.

An Olympic cycle is over and another one has already begun. After all, four years it’s a long way to Japan. And about that, I want to make a quick suggestion to Tokyo 2020: Seems like you will embrace videogames (It’s a me, Shinzo!), so maybe you can use this theme for the boxing.