Chavismo Drops the Ball: Sports on the Brink

The arrest of the president of the Venezuelan Soccer Federation is the more recent milestone in a series of events that show how, no matter the discipline, Venezuelan sports have also been taken over by the national crisis

Photo: FútbolSapiens

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about working with athletes is their capacity to strive in spite of adversity. Venezuelan sports figures often learn to develop optimism, perseverance, and high expectations under less than ideal circumstances. That continues to be true, as Venezuelan athletes like Yulimar Rojas (in the triple long jump) or Antonio Díaz (karate) keep achieving incredible results among the world’s elite.

But the massive deterioration of Venezuela has inevitably engulfed our sporting arena. Way back in 2014, during a series of focus groups with various athletes and professionals of different disciplines, corruption came up as the most common element of impact. CADIVI distorted many practices where athletes tried to enlist in as many international tournaments as possible, not as a challenge to themselves but as a way to obtain as many preferential dollars as possible. Blatant cases of corruption also appeared in the public eye, such as the fraudulent assignment of preferential dollars to race car drivers that include a handout of 66 million dollars, and the case of an official from the Instituto Nacional de Deportes (IND) who was caught entering Bulgaria with a suitcase filled with over half a million dollars in cash.

Sports function as a metaphor of society and, right now in Venezuela, they increasingly portray the perverse deterioration of our social fabric. With all tournaments on hold due to the pandemic, local sports news have fused with the crime section.

We recently saw the arrest of the Venezuelan Soccer Federation’s president on charges of fraud and embezzlement, evidencing the truth to a list of growing rumors regarding corruption in the Federation. Considering how the previous president continues to serve his sentence in the U.S., this is really new wine in old bottles. Added complications reside in how the vice president of the Federation, next in line to fill the vacancy left by the president, happens to also be the country’s Minister of Sports, leading to questions of independence, an essential requisite for FIFA. His position has been at the center of numerous controversies regarding, for example, the firing of the women’s national team head coach, Kenneth Zseremeta, after declaring that some of his players were suffering from malnutrition, and the unexpected hiring of the new men’s head coach, José Peseiro, appearing on the IND’s Twitter account before it was posted by the Federation.

With all tournaments on hold due to the pandemic, local sports news have fused with the crime section.

A couple of days before that, the Bravos of Margarita, a team of the professional baseball league, was seized by the government as part of the actions against Tobías Carrero’s properties, regarding his alleged debts to Venalum. In February 2019, Maduro boasted that he forced the players of the Leones to play the second game of the final, after they attempted to walk out denouncing the murder of protesters by the government on the eve of the game. International politics also appeared on the field at the end of last year, after the Office of Foreign Assets Control declared that two teams of the league were off-limits to Major League Baseball, because of the sanctions against any company related to Venezuelan government. With the Bravos now intervened, baseball seems on the verge of the abyss.

The National Basketball League has floundered since 2017, when the fifty-plus game tournament began to be reduced to a sixteen-game tournament, as a result of economic difficulties, internal squabbles and government influence. In 2019, a short tournament and a curious array of other competitions (such as three-on-three tournaments) were organized by the league, amidst rumors of criminals financing some of the teams.

The stories behind each crisis will one day shed light on the perverse logic that has systematically undermined many successful enterprises in the country, the combination of a government that tries to control every inch of its citizen’s life, along with the growing ownership of the professional teams by boliburgués elites that funnel part of their dubious money into sports. 

And, worldwide, it’s proven that sports are prone to corruption. But regardless of what may happen behind the curtains, you still have to win on the field. The athlete’s prowess and the team’s abilities will continue to be key. This, the continued focus on the development of oneself’s talents in spite of the corrupt forces everywhere, is the one saving grace that may, one day, lead Venezuelan sports out of this pathetic scenario.