Gold Medals for the Economic Crisis

Venezuela's controverted performance at the 2019 Pan American Games reignites the debate about the state of sports in our country.

Photo: Panam Sports retrieved

After the 2019 Pan American Games ended in Lima, several countries are more than excited with their results. It’s not just host Peru, which got a historical amount of medals: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Chile accomplished their best-ever performances at those games. Mexico, Argentina and the Dominican Republic are happy, as they did their best in editions away from their borders. On the other side, Cuba had its worst Pan-Am since Cali 1971.

What about Venezuela? 

Well, we got one more gold medal than we did in Toronto four years ago, but this total of 40 medals is the lowest in 20 years (after 43 in Winnipeg, 1999). The biggest setback is that, for the first time since the 1975 edition, our delegation was out of the top ten, only reaching the 12th position.

This total of 40 medals is the lowest in 20 years.

The victories of Yulimar Díaz, Daniel Dhers, Antonio Díaz and the Limardo brothers (Rubén and Jesús) clashed with high-profile incidents, like what happened to open water swimmer Paola Pérez, who suffered hypothermia during the 10K women’s event, because the swimsuit she was given by the Federation didn’t comply with regulations. She wore a normal one, unfit for cold waters, finishing 11th, unlike in 2015 where she won silver. She’s been public about her disappointment. 

From the withdrawal of the tennis delegation to the video-resignation of shooter Eligio Centeno from the national team, the situation among Venezuelan athletes in Lima was of serious concern, with fingers pointed to Sports Minister Pedro Infante who, of course, blamed the sanctions.

Infante’s excuses didn’t stop Rubén Limardo from showing his solidarity with the rest of the delegation, telling Venezuelan sports journalist Eumar Esaa, “I’m just putting myself in the position of fellow teammates who are going through hard stuff. It’s time they open their eyes and see what’s happening, because Venezuelan sports don’t deserve this.”

“The results (of Lima 2019) ratify Venezuela’s worst moment (in the Pan-Am Games) since Rio 2007,” said veteran sports reporter Ramón Navarro to Caracas Chronicles. “The success of athletes has to be celebrated, but it can’t cover up the mismanagement. Beyond the individual achievements, there’s still the rotten core structure (of Venezuelan sports).”

A large part of the Venezuelan delegation didn’t keep with the training cycles established for the games. Esaa told Caracas Chronicles that between 17 and 19 disciplines did their prepping thanks to funds provided by Panam Sports (formerly known as PASO) to the Venezuelan Olympic Committee, and some athletes paid their expenses with Olympic grants or personal scholarships or sponsors. Even trainers are departing to neighboring countries.

Esaa adds that Maduro’s announcement of six million euros spent for the preparation of Venezuelan competitors, one month before Lima 2019, changed nothing: “The Venezuelan canoeing team gets invited to train in Mexico and their federation agrees to pay the plane tickets. Our federation asks the Sports Ministry for the rest of the travel expenses, which refuses because it doesn’t see the trip as a priority. The tickets went to waste.”

A large part of the Venezuelan delegation didn’t keep with the training cycles established for the games.

The first post-mortem about Venezuela’s performance in Lima puts the role of Infante front and center and presents the uneasy position many of our athletes found themselves in. The issues have also worsened with the general effect of the crisis, like the growing diaspora across the region; just before the games started, Peruvian media covered the case of four Venezuelans that chose to represent Peru. 

In the meantime, Colombia continues to be the new regional sports powerhouse. Esaa believes this is due to three main factors: “First, the government and the sports sector (the Colombian Olympic Committee and the autonomous national sport institution, Coldeportes) work harmoniously. Second, they have confidence to host events of international magnitude. And third, Colombia has a long tradition of private sponsorships. Athletes don’t have to beg the state for assistance, which wears them down and affects their training.”

Navarro agrees with the Colombian model and compares it with our own: “Venezuela prefers to sideline athletes that either criticize the system openly, or don’t offer results, instead of further encouraging them.”

Even if Venezuela didn’t get any available spots for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during Lima 2019, Esaa doesn’t think that the performance will affect the current Olympic cycle very much. The real problem could come, instead, for the next two coming down the road (Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028). “It doesn’t look good.”

“In Venezuela, sports are built with what’s at hand,” Navarro warns, “not with what’s needed.”