Julio Mayora and Another Victory for Chavismo

A Venezuelan weightlifter winning silver in Tokyo is the embodiment of the hardships to train, the vulnerability of the poor to the regime’s manipulation, and the lack of empathy in our public opinion

Photo: Marca

“Too easy,” says one of the neighbors in Santa Eduviges, a slum in Catia La Mar, La Guaira. He says it again after a few seconds. Around him, more people are watching the Tokyo Olympics on a big screen. When “too easy” is uttered for the third time, Julio Mayora appears to lift 150 kilograms. When the international broadcast announces that’s the weight, nobody should say “that’s too easy” anymore. The athlete starts his routine—grabbing the bar, positioning the feet, aligning the hip—and the Mexican commentator says: “That’s our boy.” Julio Mayora lifts all that weight and a collective “vaaaaaaaaamos,” cheers and applause erupt where he grew up. Julio Mayora hasn’t won the silver medal, some attempts will still be necessary before ending his chance, but people are already excited.

In order to take that medal, the first one for Venezuela during these Games, Julio Mayora will have to lift 190 kilos more. After a couple of minutes, he does it on the third attempt, a total of 346 kilos. It seems too much for a man who weighs 73 kilos. However, the easiness in Julio Mayora’s attitude produces the illusion that it’s, in fact, too easy. Journalist Mari Riquelme tweeted the score sheet of his first participation in an international competition. It happened in 2014. Julio was already part of the adult national team when he was 17 years old. 

That single fact is relevant itself. Notice that a teenager needs more than just luck to belong to a senior national team. Riquelme recalls that when Julio was 16, he could lift 231 kilos. That’s more than talent. When we think, as spectators, beyond the hype of the moment, that doing that is “too easy,” we are dismissing the story of previous attempts that professional sports are made of; during a swing, a shot or a service, there’s an effort of three, four, five years of preparation, or an entire life. 

Fireworks, flags and records don’t document the particular tension behind those moments. Julio Mayora doesn’t only have the attention of his hometown Catia La Mar. Every athlete has a lot of attention on her or himself. Sometimes, it’s too much. 

Simone Biles, maybe the most important figure of the U.S. delegation, pulled out of a competition overwhelmed by pressure, worried about her mental health. “We hope America still loves us,” she said. That phrase says more about the historical moment than about her. 

The book The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, about the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci who stunned the world at the Montreal Olympics 45 years ago, describes in detail the relationship between the State and its athletes, the manipulations and the role they are forced to play when they are not useful as propaganda tools anymore. The history of political manipulation and pressure that socialist regimes such as Ceaucescu’s Romania and Castro’s Cuba put on their Olympic teams is long and full of tales of abuse. 

Venezuela also has its history: What happened to boxer Francisco “Morochito” Rodríguez after he was celebrated for his medal? Did Adriana Carmona, who won two Olympic medals in taekwondo, get the house the government promised? Why is Stefany Hernández not competing this year in BMX, after her bronze medal in Río 2016? Which is the role of the Venezuelan State in the emotional assistance of athletes? 

Considering the context of the humanitarian crisis the country has been experiencing for years, maybe those questions are a bit out of order. However, we need to ask them because this isn’t only about chavismo. It’s also about the society that appropriates the victories of the athletes but ignores them when they fail.

No other competition gathers more talent than the Olympics. These times are perhaps the most complex of contemporary history because of the pandemic. Canceled competitions, infection-causing injuries or impacting the athletes’ health in the long term,  training schedules conditioned or suspended for months, as happened with Argentina’s Delfina Pignatiello, and so much more. People exposed to the effects of isolation on their mental health, the empty seats are an abnormality in the landscape of sport.

In the case of Venezuelan athletes, you have to add all those conditions to the burden of our country’s crisis. The main options for Olympic medals for Venezuela rest in the hands of Yulimar Rojas and Daniel Dhers. Both of them have been training abroad for years and enjoy stability beyond this competition. Both are recognized in their fields. Daniel is a historical figure in BMX Freestyle. Their preparation doesn’t depend on state resources or the precarious sports infrastructure in  Venezuela. It’s true that several members of the current Olympic Venezuelan team have trained in other countries, as many journalists have reported, but the fact is that Venezuelan athletes have to make themselves, and adjust their goals to their capacity to satisfy their needs.

What do we know about Julio Mayora’s preparation? Why did he have to go train in the Dominican Republic before he went to Japan? Where were we when he earned medals at the Bolivarian Games in Santa Marta in 2017, at the South American in Cochabamba in 2018, at the Central American and Caribbean in Barranquilla in 2018 and at the Panamerican in Lima in 2019? 

Maybe that explains this message from Yulimar Rojas: 

When Julio Mayora appeared dedicating his victory to late Hugo Chávez for his birthday, during a moment devoid of real joy, many social media users who a few hours before had praised him started questioning him immediately. By then, we had watched how his neighbors were living the triumph, thanks to journalist Juan José Sayago. The pictures of his achievement were spreading. WhatsApp status and stories were taking Julio Mayora out of anonymity. We knew everything and nothing about him. In a middle point between those two extremes, there’s a need and a dream that’s bigger than the silver medal on the other side of the planet: for Julio Mayora, that metal is, above all, the opportunity to claim, using his sudden visibility, a proper house for his mom.

The digital anger about what he said regarding the Venezuelan government leads to a conclusion: chavismo has it too easy when we decide to give less value to an Olympic medal than to a conditioned declaration.