"A cult of suffering and abnegation." 
A conversation about the cultural significance of cycling in Colombia with Corey Shouse Torino Ph.D.

This is the second part of my conversation about cycling in Colombia, and the social environment that surround it, with Corey Shouse Tourino Ph.D. (see here for part one).

Corey is a professor of Hispanic Studies and director of the Latino/Latin American Studies program at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. He’s currently preparing to write a book about the history of the Vuelta a Colombia. In this second part, Corey speaks about the connections between spectacle and sport, religion and cycling, as well as the view of Colombians as underdogs on the world stage.

Do you see a link between Colombia's highly religious beliefs, and its love for cycling?
I know you agree with Matt Rendell on this point, but I’m not convinced. Many Colombians are devout Catholics, and the cyclists are no exception. The celebration of their particular virgins, the wearing of scapulars, the promises made in the name of Saints and Mary – all of this is indeed an important part of Colombian cycling. Without this Colombians would never have understood Herrera’s bloodied win on St. Etienne as an individual and national Via Crucis.

That said, this kind or popular religious expression is by no means unique to Colombia and can be found in many places with or without a strong cycling culture. In the Colombian case, I think the religious devotion of cyclists is important not because of the particular practices themselves, but rather because the cyclists’ cult of suffering and abnegation resonated so strongly with local fans who felt an emotional kinship to these figures and their accomplishments. This is less of a literal kind of truth and more of an allegorical or aesthetic one. This doesn’t make the ‘religious truth’ of cycling it any less important or truthful, just a bit more abstract. The same way that non-literalist Christians recognize the truth in the stories of miracles, Jobe, etc. this is how Colombians understand the valor of their long-suffering cyclists.

Then and now. Colombian Alvaro Gomez (left) visits a church before the start of a stage in the Vuelta a Guatemala. A rider from Indeportes Antioquia (right) visits a church before the start of a stage at the Vuelta a Colombia. Left photo by Horacio Gil Ochoa. Photo right by Bleakney photo.

I see your point. Though I think this aesthetic or allegorical link is, perhaps because religion and Colombia are involved, a strong one. I suppose religious-like passion for sport is not unique to Colombia. Having said that, the thought of Colombians crying as they watched a bloodied Herrera, and the possible implications, are far too strong for me. 

But religion aside, would you say that the kinship Colombians felt with cyclists —and thus with their cult of suffering and abnegation—had some connection to the time in which the sport was most popular in Colombia? Perhaps I’m stretching my reasoning here, but the visual vocabulary in Colombia at the time was one of both suffering and abnegation. In other words, cycling spoke a language that Colombians were already fluent in.

I absolutely agree with you: this was a time when on a national scale the distance between metaphorical martyrdom on the soccer field or on the bicycle and literal martyrdom of life on the streets or in the countryside was often non-existent. I don’t think most of your American readers will really appreciate what it meant to live through the political violence of the 50s or the cartel bombings and insurgency/paramilitary violence of the 80s and 90s.

Add to this recent campaigns of waves of social cleansing, the phenomenon of the sicario, and the debasing of human life to the point where homeless children can be referred to as ‘desechables’ or disposable, and you have a ‘national cultural language’ that will understand the triumphs of the Café de Colombia generation as literal expressions of religious endurance, faith and suffering. The very real religious practices shared by these cyclists and the national population certainly link the more abstract aesthetic truth of cycling to a religious understanding of the struggle to survive. I don’t think this is necessarily Colombian, but rather speaks to the nature of popular Catholic practices around the globe.

Herrera at St Etienne

I've always thought that Colombia as a whole has used sport as an opiate of sorts, a distraction during times of stress…which a nation like Colombia goes through often. The rise of cycling during tough times (La Violencia, Rojas Pinilla), and consequently of soccer during Escobar's time seem to follow a similar arc. Would you agree with such notion, or does the sport's appeal lie elsewhere?

Who doesn’t use sports that way? I first learned this lesson following the Steelers in Pittsburgh the early 90s: sport is a hugely important form of popular distraction or bakhtinian carnival. Politicians, advertisers and promoters are not dumb and know a good PR opportunity when they see one. Rojas Pinilla was an active supporter of the Vuelta [a Colombia] and Belisario Betancur even signed a presidential decree granting state support to cycling in the name of improving the nation’s image abroad.

But this cuts both ways – as much as state officials might like to hitch their wagons to popular culture, they just as often can’t easily contain where it goes or what the meaning participants make from their participation. The number of cycling clubs in Colombia, the hundreds of small shrines along highways dedicated to fallen cyclists, the permutations that the drug traffickers gave the sport – all of this falls outside the control of official culture and is a testament to the deep and murky well of meaning that cycling generates in Colombia.

Robert Millar and Patrocinio Jimenez

Colombians, even the wealthiest ones, loved the image of their cyclists as the impoverished underdogs. In that sense, cycling helped unite (if only momentarily) an incredibly class-conscious society. The lowest classes rose in the eyes of those in power, as they themselves took great pride in those who they suddenly saw as their own. Do you see this as a unique aspect to Colombian cycling, or is this part of the international sporting narrative?

This is one of the slipperiest populist fantasies in sports: the dream of equating the racial diversity on the playing field with the social order off of it. Think of the ways that American sports commentators actively celebrate the racial diversity of pro sports in the United States, or the way that Brazilians or the French talk about their national soccer teams as indicative of the rich diversities of their populations.

This is all fine and well, but it doesn’t keep the mostly white commentators from expressing irritation with mostly black NBA players for wearing hoodies to call attention to Trayvon Martin’s murder, nor does it erase the de facto racial caste system in Brazil, nor does it keep discriminated French Muslims from rioting in Paris.

Colombians have every reason to see themselves as underdogs on the world stage – the country is subject to conditions and forces (like drug money or Plan Colombia) generated well beyond their national boundaries. In this sense, Colombians should gobble up their own story as underdog heroes. But the intentional confusion of this sporting egalitarianism with the idea of democracy and inclusion at home in one of the world’s least equitable societies – this is a dangerous story to swallow. The key is to encourage the active reading of these stories by a self-aware audience of involved citizens.

Rigoberto Uran and Leonardo Duque, the only two Colombian's at last year's Tour de France.

You are interested in, and have studied film and television in Colombia (telenovelas included). How do you think the country's passion for cycling fits in with our need for spectacle, as seen in the popularity of novelas? Has cycling at times fulfilled the role of live theater?

I don’t want to come across as anti-sport or overly cynical, nor do I think that figures like Lucho Herrera or Rigoberto Urán need to be athlete activists. I too am a sports fan who indulges in less-than-rational rantings for teams and athletes that don’t really do anything other than entertain me. I get stupid angry when the Steelers lose or when a Colombian cyclist is hurt (Soler’s story is just too much for me). I also wish with my every breath that Lance Armstrong would finally get busted and that Juan Pablo Montoya would go back to Formula One, or that Nicky Hayden and Yonny Hernández will rule this year’s MotoGP season (fat chance).

Cycling in Colombia, especially during the 80s, was indeed live theater, but it was one that was deeply needed. The problem is when this kind of easy nationalism displaces the harder conversations about what it really means to be a citizen. Colombia doesn’t much like to look at itself in the mirror that way. The ongoing human rights problems, the two million internally displaced people, the nearly two thousand falsos positivos – this is the real Colombian drama that is all too often glossed over by the equally compelling drama on the soccer field or in a telenovela. All Colombians like to share in the victory of the selección nacional [national soccer team], but you can’t say the same for the shared sense of responsibility for the country’s two thousand political murders per year. Sometimes these competing national dramas clash – like when Andrés Escobar was murdered – but all too often they don’t and one displaces the other.

Armando Ariztizábal was murdered, and found bound and with signs of torture outside Medellin. Photo from the book Kings Of The Mountains by Matt Rendell.

At first I wanted to disagree with you, but I then pictured the reaction that Rigoberto Uran would get if he were to speak out regarding falsos positivos to the international press. This is not to say that as a sport figure he should, that he wants to, or even thinks about the topic. I merely posed that scenario in my mind, and quickly realized that he’d be hated by many in Colombia, and the press would denounce him for speaking negatively about Colombia to the foreign press. I think Colombianos would see it, by and large, almost as though he were discussing highly private concerns going on in a household, with outsiders. It’s not done…and sadly, this is a dangerous path to follow. We see athletes as a celebration of that which is good in Colombia, and mixing the two would be difficult. So are Colombians merely using sport as entertainment, as those in other countries do? 

That’s a tough one. I would argue that while Colombians certainly embrace sport as an opiate-like escape, more often than other groups they are reminded of the harsh reality that surrounds it. One of the best moments in the fantastic ESPN documentary The Two Escobars is when the coach of the 1994 Colombia World Cup team, Francisco Maturana, describes the collective naiveté of Colombians who wanted to imagine the rise of Colombian soccer as a positive force somehow free and clear from what he calls the ‘tentacles’ of the ‘narcotrafficking octopus.’  With the disastrous run in the World Cup, surrounded by nasty threats against players and public displays of mafia influence in the game, and culminating with Andrés Escobar’s own goal and murder, even the most dreamy-eyed Colombian soccer fan had to wake-up and recognize the dangers of buying into a national sports fairytale. 

The cartel-related deaths of cyclists Alfonso Flórez, Armando Ariztizábal and Juan Carlos Castillo serve as similar reminders that sport does not exist in a bubble, but that it is an intricate part of the social and economic fabric of society. If anything, I think American consumers of sports are much more self-indulgent and disconnected: sit-down and watch the seriousness of the haggling on Sports Center and you’d think so-and-so’s blown ACL was a major international crisis. As a media genre, sporting events and sport journalism are essentially melodrama: like a soap opera they give us simple, condensed versions of life with good guys, bad guys and wonderful plot twists. It is easy to watch this as a well-deserved ‘escape from reality’ and hard to turn into a more meaningful way to critically understand the sports in context. Jackie Robinson was hugely important to the Civil Rights Movement, and I can’t see why Colombian athletes couldn’t have a similar role in the national conversation about equality and human rights.

Alfonso Florez, pictured here with his family, was murdered in 1992.

What do you hope to accomplish with your research into Colombian cycling, and what plans do you have for the near future? You’ve mentioned the possibility of writing a book about the Vuelta a Colombia.

You’ve caught me just after a big conference, so I’ve got my academic brain on right now. I won’t write a fan book or try to re-write the history of the sport in Colombia. Rather, my aim is to flesh out the deeper cultural significance of cycling in Colombia as a spectator sport, as a media event and as a popular cultural practice. Hopefully my book will thread three needles. I want to write a book about the cultural significance of cycling in Colombia that is meaningful to Colombians, useful in the undergraduate classroom, that appeals to an audience interested in Latin America and that is compelling to fans of cycling. When I gave my first talk on this project a couple of weeks ago those three groups seemed pretty pleased – my students were all ears, the guys in spandex ate it up and my colleagues didn’t give me the stink eye. I couldn’t ask for much more. ◼

Sport Obsession and National Reinvention:
The Spectacle of Professional Cycling in Colombia



The Tour of California will start this weekend. In it, a full Colombian team (Colombia-Coldeportes) will compete, along with two more Colombian riders in Team Exergy (three if you count Bogota-born Fred Rodriguez). If you live in California, cheer these guys on, say hello, make them feel at home!