Nairo Quintana is welcomed by the town of Tunja after his Tour de France success (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
As Martin Ramirez crossed the finish line of the last stage at the 1984 Dauphiné Libéré, he knew he'd won the race. He was an amateur and only 24 years old. The magnitude of his accomplishment didn't hit him at first. But its importance was made clear very soon after. As he stood by the finish line, a Colombian journalist handed him a phone with an long cord (which ran all the way into a local business, and was how the radio journalist had been doing his live broadcast). On the other end of the line was Colombian president Belisario Betancur. This was the first time that cycling had received such attention from Colombia's president. Ramirez was so excited, that he didn't know what to make of the call, and remembers the following,
"At one point the president asked me what I would like most at that very moment. Without even thinking of it, I said I wanted to hear our national anthem. I felt more Colombian than ever, I was so happy, so proud. So they played it for me."
But the joy didn't really last. Ramirez was promised many things by any number of politicians, including a free apartment (which didn't turn out to be free at all, but merely the chance to put down a down payment, and start making payments on an apartment he couldn't realistically afford). But Ramirez, a man of little means at the time, one who had focused his entire life on cycling. Through that experience, he learned a lesson very quickly,
"When you win something like that, people in Colombia come out of nowhere, offering you all kinds of things, just to get publicity, to get press for politicians…all they're doing is taking advantage of you, and of the situation."
A matter of class
This sometimes uncomfortable relationship, that of sports and politics, is by no means unique to Colombia. In just about every country, politicians in the highest posts will often use sport as a way of relating to the people, often with amazingly transparent and downright amusing results . Sport is tied into nationalist pride, regional identity and countless other sentiments that are easy to co-opt by any number of people. Then there's the fact that some politicians are actually passionate about a sport or a team, which only helps humanize them further in the eyes of those they want to win over.
But in Colombia, there's a deeper, more engrained meaning to this relationship of sport and the masses. This is largely because Colombia is incredibly class conscious, and such exchanges happen across class divisions which so obviously define interactions. In fact, as late as the 1980s, social scientists had trouble defining social class, and its meaning in Colombia since it's so deeply embedded in our culture, that it's been difficult to separate it from its other aspects in Colombian life. According to many in Colombia, this is a seemingly hardwired component that is left over from sixteenth century Spanish rule, which today is best exemplified by official social strata divisions that were first outlined in a 1994 law. That law created official social classes states based on income that are "an instrument that allows a municipality or district to classify its population in distinct groups or strata with similar social and economic characteristics". To be fair, this law was passed as a way of identifying people who needed government subsidies, as well as percentages to be paid when getting medical attention through the governments socialized healthcare system. They do not exist as a way of actively discriminating against citizens. Nevertheless, it's an interesting artifact of (I feel) Colombia's highly class conscious reality.
Nairo Quintana is welcomed in Bogota (Photo: El Colombiano)
Representatives of the people
Last week, I sat looking at my computer screen for nearly two hours, watching a live broadcast of Nairo Quintana's arrival to Colombia, as well as the subsequent parade into the Presidential Palace that followed (okay, I was multi-tasking at times, I admit). During some moments, thousands lined the streets and highway overpasses, dumping flower petals onto the double-decker bus that carried Quintana and his family. As the convoy reached the city center, the number of people increased dramatically, as did the number of cyclists and police motorcycles that followed the bus. It was an amazing display from a city and a country that love the sport. And I have to admit that at times, despite the awful commentator, I became emotional. I recognized the streets, the intersections, and the number of people out on the streets...it was an amazing thing to be watching live.
Nairo Quintana is welcomed in Bogota (Photo: El Tiempo)
Nairo Quintana is awareded the Cruz De Boyaca (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
The day ended with Quintana being honored by the president, as he was awarded the Cruz De Boyaca (the highest honor that the Colombian government can give), an honor that began when Colombia's liberator Simon Bolivar gave that medal to combatants who helped in the fight for Colombia's independence. Noteworthy recipients of the prize include: Tony Blair, Lucho Herrera, Rigoberto Uran, Maria Pajon, though the list is largely made up of politicians, industrialists and military leaders. The ceremony included Colombian cyclists from the past like Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra, Santiago Botero, and Cochise Rodriguez.
Quintana then went on to have a similarly impressive reception in the town where he now lives, Tunja in the department of Boyaca (you can read about Boyaca's rich cycling heritage here). He arrived in a bus that belongs to Colombia's continental Movistar team, who lent their team bus for the occasion. Curiously, Quintana waved to fans through the windshield (since all other windows were obscured, as they are in all team buses), leading to an unusual, almost Pope-mobile effect in the streets of Boyaca. A huge ceremony followed, where politicians, and local leaders spoke, as local heroes Fabio Parra and Mauricio Soler (a close friend to Quintana) were also honored.
Nairo Quintana was welcomed back by the town of Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
Nairo Quintana was welcomed back by the town of Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
Nairo Quintana and Mauricio Soler in Tunja last week (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)
Through all this, all the honors bestowed upon Quintana, I saw a Colombian population that (as always) takes unbelievable pride in sporting accomplishments, in great part because they put us on equal footing with other (larger, richer) nations. But also because such victories do what Colombians often refer to as, "
dejar nuestro nombre en alto
", an emotion-filled expression that roughly translates to making a nation proud, or actively improving the way Colombia is perceived by others. But through all this, I thought about Martin Ramirez, and his cautious words about the nature of politicians and other leaders at times like this (this is true anywhere, even Ryder Hesjedal shook a few hands and posed with babies after his Giro win). But I also thought about an exchange about this very subject that I had with Matt Rendell, particularly about the meaning of these exchanges in the context of Colombian society.
Cycling in Colombia has always been a sport that mostly attracted the very poor. People that often live in conditions that don't even exist in many other countries. And yet, the sport has attracted presidents and the powerful in one way or another. Colombian politicians always took great interest in cycling and cyclists, more so than politicians even in other poor countries. Did you find this to be unusual in researching your books?
You know, I think you're right. It's a symbolic exchange whereby by the head of the ruling class, i.e. the president, makes a direct communication with the kind of elected representative of the poor people.
Yes, when we saw Lucho Herrera and the president…well, they were two heads of state actually. Each representing a group with unique values and interests to the other. This is more significant in a place like Colombia than in others, because of its social make-up, which is unlike that of the United States.
So it's almost anthropological in that sense, it's a way of re-knitting the social contract.
Video showing Quintana's welcome into Bogota's airport, including interviews with fans. Spanish speakers will no doubt notice the use of the phrase "dejar nuestro nombre en alto."
A perfect representation
Despite all these honors, and outpouring of emotion (or perhaps because of them) by politicians, some in Colombia are crying foul, charging men like Colombia's president with being a lagarto (which literally translates to alligator, but actually refers to an opportunist newcomer, a Johnny-come-lately). And although Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president, has been a long-time cycling fan, it's easy to point out how little the government has done to support men like Quintana (conversely, it's also worth pointing out that the support available is substantial when compared to the days of men like Herrera and Martin Ramirez). Nevertheless, an uncomfortable fact remains unsaid, and that's the uneasy relationship that exists in all societies between the ruling class, and the poorer segments of society where many sporting heroes originate. With victory, they are elevated to the highest status, but some level of class division exists, as it does in every society. Colombia is not completely unique in this regard at all, but those differences are certainly palpable.
But in the end, these victories, as well as the reaction that follows, are a perfect representation of how imperfect and human any nation is. Nations of politicians, of class divisions, of opportunism...but in Colombia's case also one of hard working individuals, of human struggle, of joyous people, and above all (and I hope I'm not being willfully obtuse here), of people who love cycling, and for whom the sport has always remained an embedded part of their everyday reality. ■
You can read my full interview with Martin Ramirez here
You can read the portion of my interview with Matt Rendell that included this discussion here