The Battle Inside Venezuelan Sports

Venezuela’s disappointing performance at the 2017 Bolivarian Games provokes serious questions, but a very controversial firing has overshadowed the entire discussion.

After the Bolivarian Games 2017 in Santa Marta, one thing is clear: Colombia became the real sport powerhouse in the region, not us. Our neighbors’ huge medal advantage in this edition not only surpassed all expectations, it confirmed what we’ve witnessed in the last two Olympic cycles. Venezuela’s once undisputed dominance is now over.

Between 1961 and 2009, Venezuela ruled the regional games. Then, in the 2013 edition, Colombia won the medal table by only five golds. This year its undeniable: The gold medal gap was 119 (and the total medal gap was 168).

Here’s how the Colombian Olympic Committee (COC) puts it in its post-games summary:

“To analyze the Colombian growth in the Bolivarian region, we have to look into the past and confirm a constant sport evolution, as in the last decade the country (Colombia) has gone up level and reinforce the idea of being a sport powerhouse in the continent, which is already a reality in the Bolivarian Sport Organization (ODEBO) and in a conjunctural moment that allows to see both the Venezuelan regression and the Colombian development.”

What did the government say? Well, Sport Vice-Minister Juan Carlos Amarante told Colombian newspaper El Espectador that “expectations have been fulfilled”, but his boss, Sport Minister Pedro Infante, admitted to El Universal that expectations felt short. Shrug emoji.

What can explain such disappointing results? El Estimulo’s Esmer Esaa offers a great round-up.

Some of the sports have suffered a serious lack of funding and logistical disadvantages, and many local federations are a mess after official involvement in their internal elections since earlier this year.

There has been a continuous decline of the National Sports Games, our largest domestic multi-sport competition. It was supposed to be held earlier this year, but the event was postponed for obvious reasons. Apparently, they’ll go ahead in 2018.

Once a biannual event hosted by a single state, the National Sports Games changed its format in 2007 and became more of a “regional” event, with several states sharing the competitions.

The performance of Venezuela’s female football team is under the spotlight, after they got only bronze, being clear favorites. Vinotinto head coach, Kenneth Zseremeta, told reporters that the result came as a combination of factors, from important players like Deyna Castellanos missing, to more dramatic problems.

A single quote got most of the media attention (it starts in the video at 1:08).

“Before we came here (to Santa Marta) and we have to be clear about that, there’s no need to lie, our players showed a tremendous degree of malnutrition. After the evaluations were made and I got the results of malnourishment, I got teared up. These girls are heroines…”

The Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) strongly denied Zsemereta’s allegations, yet Javier Peralta, head of the FVF’s medical committee said to El Nacional:

“The situation in Venezuela isn’t easy. There are players that are not middle-class. They live in small towns of Yaracuy, Apure, Guarico and it’s unknown how they feed themselves.”

It’s worth noting, there’s an internal report from the Sport Ministry’s Medical Department in which five Vinotinto players showed “nutritional risk” and two had mild anemia. The FVF’s Medical Committee says that the tests show all players were in “apt conditions”.

This week, the FVF announced via written statement that Zsemereta was sacked:

“Kenneth Zseremeta will stop being from this moment the head coach of the U-20 women’s Vinotinto, given that the results obtained in official tournaments and friendly matches during the preparation cycle for the South American U-20 Championship (next year in Ecuador), which serves as qualifier for the U-20 World Cup (next year in France), were not as expected.”

During his helm at the U-17 Women Vinotinto, he won two South American Championships (2013 and 2016, played in Barquisimeto) and made three U-17 World Cups (2010, 2014 and 2016). The Vinotinto got into semifinals and finished fourth in Costa Rica ’14 and Jordania ’16.

Venezuelan athletes now face a tough schedule to Tokyo 2020. If getting a spot on the contest was already a challenge for our athletes, it could become even harder over time.

UPDATE: Hours before this article was published, fired coach Zsemereta and Sports Minister Infante met in Caracas and made “peace”. Zsemereta now publicly disavows all the statements he made previously, assuming the government’s discourse. Even if Zsemereta’s future role with the FVF is unclear, Infante hinted that “he’ll continue working for the national sport”.

This last-minute twist wants to shut down the controversy, but leaves quite a lot of questions open.