Venezuelans are overwhelmed by a spiraling economy and a dire humanitarian crisis. This situation has become the main thing people recognize us for, forget about the old chiché of “oil and beautiful women.” Internally, it’s all about survival. That’s the day-to-day. And yet, here we are. In the words of one of the country’s best Olympic Games correspondents: “Ready for Venezuela’s best performance ever.”
Pregunta muy seria:
¿Están preparados para la actuación más destacada de Venezuela en TODA su historia de los Juegos Olímpicos?
— Juan José Sayago (@jjsayago) July 28, 2021
The 44 athlete delegation, the smallest Venezuela has taken to a Summer Olympics in 16 years, is achieving its best performance ever, already conquering three silver medals, and a world record-breaking gold. It’s not only the most medals we’ve ever won in one Summer Olympics, it’s also the first time we win this big.
And when you read the stories behind several of the stars it’s hard to fathom the lengths they’ve gone to live out their dreams. There’s an extra layer of motivation needed with little to no official support, in a country with an economy the fraction of the size it was a decade ago. You really have to want it.
The athletes’ backstories are as varied as they come.
— Los Juegos Olímpicos (@juegosolimpicos) August 1, 2021
We have Daniel Dhers, who’s considered one of the most important figures in the BMX world stage. He’s based in Raleigh, North Carolina and runs one of the most influential BMX training centers—the Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex—, where fellow Olympic medalists Hanna Roberts and Nikita Ducarroz train—regularly receiving training tips from Dhers.
Fellow medalist and one of the most recognizable faces in the Venezuelan delegation, her majesty Yulimar Rojas, who smashed the triple jump world record with a whopping 15.67, has also managed to guarantee sponsors and the best preparation available thanks to her already impressive record.
At the other end of the spectrum, we see stories of sheer willpower to transcend impossible training conditions.
Keydomar Vallenilla, the second silver medal Venezuela picked up, who trained in La Guaira, comes from the Cota 905, which was recently making headlines for all the wrong reasons: an all-out war between criminal gangs and one of the most violent police forces—which has already been accused of heinous crimes against humanity.
Just a few weeks before, the last thing on our minds would have been that one of its children would have lifted 210 kilos in Tokyo. In all likelihood, Keydomar was just as concerned for his preparation as he was about everything going down in la Cota.
Hablar con el señor Hildomar Vallenilla y escuchar su emoción, sentir las palmadas de los abrazos que le daban sus vecinos de El Paraíso y oírlo decir entre llanto: "mi hijo Keydomar es mi orgullo" son las cosas que me recuerdan porque soy periodista.
— Genesis Carrero Soto (@GenesisCS) July 31, 2021
There’s Ahymara Espinoza, who turned an abandoned lot into her own personal training ground. She was a physical education teacher in rural Barlovento, Miranda, a region two hours removed from Caracas.
With no training team, financial support, medical assistance, nutritionists, sports psychologists, sponsors, manager, or help of any kind, to say she prepared her second appearance in a Summer Olympics with her own bare hands is not an exaggeration.
Mañana debuta Ahymara Espinoza en lanzamiento de bala y solo hay que aplaudirla. Logró la clasificación a pesar de estar entrenando en un estadio abandonado de Barlovento durante los últimos años luego de dar clases de educación física en la escuela. pic.twitter.com/KBci784BKU
— Diego Vivas (@diegovivas) July 29, 2021
Because of the pandemic, Ahymara had to take up a job as a taxi driver and grocery delivery woman to pay her bills. She finished 25th overall, starting the Olympics ranked 40th. “I went through a lot, and being here is what motivates me,” she said after finishing her performance in Tokyo.
Judoka Anriquelis Barrios, who competed with an injury and has had to sort out a living with a miserable stipend and no support from the ministry (of sports), was stranded in Tokyo during the pandemic. Her preparation was reduced to training with male judo counterparts and coming up with ways to access gyms during the lockdown.
And in one of the most scarring tales of these Olympics, a member of the Olympic Refugee Team was one of the thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers who’ve fled the country in recent years. E
ldric Sella lived a triple life as a landscaper and concrete mixer during working hours, a refugee, and an Olympian in the making in Trinidad and Tobago, arguably the harshest place to migrate from Venezuela.
He went to compete in Tokyo not knowing if he could in fact return to Trinidad, prompting the UNHCR to find a new country willing to take Eldric. The 23 de Enero-born boxer fled in 2018 after competing in the Caribbean island and was close to winning a medal. “I’m here as a refugee, but to me I’m still representing Venezuela, those who left, those still there and fighting for a better country.”
Similar backgrounds are shared by many, including another silver medal-winning weightlifter, Julio Mayora, whose neighborhood of Santa Eduviges in Catia la Mar organized their own public viewing in an improvised plaza to watch as Julio wrote his name in Venezuelan Olympic history.
"Catia la Mar" es tendencia por la imágenes del barrio Santa Eduviges de Catia La Mar, pueblo donde nació Julio Mayora, ganador de la primera medalla para Venezuela en #Tokyo2020pic.twitter.com/IFwmvesjlV
— ¿Por qué es tendencia? (@estendenciavzl) July 28, 2021
The joy of Mayora’s win was followed with social media backlash, after a video of him dedicating his accomplishment to Hugo Chávez on his birthday, went viral. It was clear that he received a cue from delegation representatives to do so.
And this is where we need to talk about the public.
Politics have become such an ingrained aspect of our society that even a message that possibly Mayora couldn’t avoid, was received mercilessly and condemned automatically. It’s sad to see how much these athletes work for their accomplishments, only for politics to ruin them for everybody—including themselves. If anything, the problem wasn’t a condemnation of the politicization of sports. It was the relentless and often disgusting comments following.
The general public lacks an understanding of how people have become completely dependent on the government. There’s little wiggle room for these athletes, in a world where the rule of thumb is “within the Revolution everything, outside the Revolution nothing.”
When Julio spoke to Nicolás Maduro over the phone and on live TV, his demeanor changed. It wasn’t the ecstatic 21-year-old thanking god, his family and dedicating his medal to his country. It seemed like the gaze of somebody who knows what the “or else” portion of the agreement entails. But perhaps it was just a cue, and he’s a convinced chavista. We don’t know.
Did it sting to hear him say those words? No doubt, but to only take this into account is missing the tree for the forest.
The bigger takeaway is two-sided: On the one hand, we’ve all discovered how much talent our sports count with. Imagine what all this talent could achieve with the right support. On the other hand, how little we’ve come along from over two decades of constant bullying from a power clique of milicos, enchufados, and full-blown whackaloons. We take things at their face value and have lost the ability to contextualize.
Can’t we be happy that, at last, we’re making headlines for good reasons with all the right people?
The values we so desperately want in the main stage are personified by one of the unlikeliest yet most likable set of athletes this country has produced. Thankfully, we now have a group of winners and achievers here to help us change our view about ourselves and show us what we’re made of. That even against all odds we can still achieve “our best performance ever.”
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