The importance of sensationalist irresponsability during troubled times

Photo: Manual For Speed

This blog occupies an unusual space. Written in English, but primarily about Colombian cycling, its popularity can sometimes waiver based on the performance of riders like Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana. But even when there are frighteningly enormous spikes in readership (as there was after Quintana's performance at the Tour), few visitors are from Colombia. Because of that, I sometimes get the sense that I'm doing what I was told to never do by my mother when I was growing up: to discuss the family's business with outsiders. 

My mom, for example, suggested that I never tell friends in school that we would often eat hot chocolate with day-old bread rolls for dinner (on account of relative financial hardships). This despite the fact that it was my favorite thing to have for dinner. But in her eyes, this was a rather shameful matter, one best kept within our family, as to not divulge too much to others.

Over the years, I've come to realize how this sentiment permeates much of Colombian society. In the name of keeping up appearances among those from other nations, discussing our faults has become a monumental sin. And thus, the ability to have a social discourse dies off, as those who speak out are labeled anti-Colombian, and their motives are questioned.

Photo: Manual For Speed

I thought about this a short while ago, when I published a lengthy post about several troubling problems facing Colombian cycling today. That post, in turn, was translated into Spanish, and posted in a Colombian blog called La Ruta Del Escarabajo. The post (which pointed out glaring issues regarding everything from mismanagement of races, funds, faulty to non-existent testing practices, and how the country has become a haven for riders with dodgy backgrounds) received a fair amount of attention in Colombia's social media, and was well received. A gigantic shift from where things stood just a year ago, when no such blogs existed in Colombia, and individuals who questioned matters within the sport were receiving very real death threats through Twitter.

Still, I knew someone would object to that post sooner or later. In the end, the only objection came from one of the people mentioned in the post, Ivan Mauricio Casas, a rider who refused a doping test at a race, refused to let the chaparone enter his hotel room once contacted there. Due to this offense, he was banned. But in true Colombian fashion,  the sanction was then lifted, by (out of all people) his father, then the head of Colombia's cycling federation. This happened at the same time as the federation also lifted a lifetime ban for Ferney Bello, and gave no reason or logic as to why either action had been taken.

In the comments section of the Ruta Del Escarabajo blog, Casas stated (among other things) that I lacked objectivity, and had resorted to tabloid-style sensationalism. For good measure, he mentioned that the post had been written with destructive intent, and that I had chosen to "judge, accuse, and incinerate, instead of correcting, analyzing, and repairing", all due to my own mediocrity. He stated that he had in his possession, a document from CAS that exonerated him fully. At the time, I looked for a record of his case being taken up by CAS, or the case being dropped, but found nothing of the sort.

The response to the post took me back a bit, but at least it served as proof that discourse was now alive and well. Again, a huge departure from even a year ago, when online cycling publications in Colombia would commonly delete comments en masse.

Still, the feedback was clear.  I had written the post with the intent of destroying. All because I pointed out that the circumstance (a father lifting a two year ban for his son) seemed unusual. Something that two major newspapers in Colombia agreed with, and even prompted Colombia's government-sponsored sporting body (Colderpotes) to ask why a cycling federation that is part of the UCI can disregard the rules set forth by the parent organization. Colombia's anti-doping agency appealed the federation's decision

This past Thursday, December 19th, Casas received a two year ban from Court of Arbitration for Sport, the body he claimed had already cleared him. The case was brought on by WADA (they originally requested a sentence from 8 years to  life) against both Casas and the Colombian federation, which came out looking rather disorganized in the proceedings (filing paperwork improperly, sending faxes without identifying the sender, refusing to provide translations, and requesting that decisions be made based on submissions, and without a hearing).

As part of the ruling, Casas was also ordered to return prize money earned after the initial suspension, and will also be made to pay for the  cost of the entire arbitration, along with Colombia's cycling federation, as calculated by CAS. You can read the case file here, which will prevent me from getting further into unnecessary detail about the matter. 

And while I see why my mother insisted that we keep our family's business as such, the relationship between her reasoning and how Colombians treat cycling is obviously not analogous.

For example, consider the interesting report by the blog that translated my post earlier, regarding the fact that Colombia's cycling federation charges professionals more for their racing licenses than (seemingly) any other country in the world. Troubling when you consider that many of Colombia's professional riders, ones who ride for the most prominent domestic squads are not paid at all. To the contrary, many have to pay their own way, pay for their kit (something that Quintana himself mentioned in a recent interview with El Tiempo). And for this hefty price (by Colombian standards) riders get laughable insurance, with maximum coverage of $750 US dollars per year, and little else.* This has prompted some in Colombia to ask just where the money raised is going. The question is being asked by man through social media, in part due to troubling cases from the past. 

*If you race, or know about racing licenses and benefits in other countries, feel free to weight in through the comments section. 

File photo of Bermudez (Photo: El Tiempo)

Take Miguel Angel Bermudez as an example. This native of Boyaca was the president of the federation during the wildly successful 1980s, but had already been taking funds and kickbacks related to alcohol production in his home department as far back as 1980. He was then found to be stealing funds from the federation to buy personal goods like Betamax players (it was the 80s after all), and trips for his family. Receipts for those transactions appeared in Colombian cycling magazines at the time. In 2008 he was sentenced to 11 years in jail for embezzlement when he served as governor of Boyaca. And as late as October of this year, court cases against him were still ongoing

Which reminds me of a line from the book Perks Of Being A Wallflower, which applies to Colombian cycling almost exactly as it appears in the book.

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

Photo: Manual For Speed

In other words, this is what some (though not all) in Colombia have become accustomed to, and now think is correct. And while I pray for a day when things improve, I must also tell you that during 2013, I became aware of things that have changed the way I see the sport both in Colombia and elsewhere. Matters so serious, sad, and at times downright terrifying, that I'm not sure there's a way back to how I previously saw cycling (sorry to be cryptic here, but I'm simply unable to discuss these matters).

Where and when change will come from, I don't know. But I hope things improve, and I hope more Colombians realize that they do indeed deserve better. On the bright side, if the growing trend toward healthy discourse is an indicator, things could already be changing for the better. So maybe there's a need for "sensationalist" irresponsibility (as was stated about my post), but also for the ability to denounce a piece of writing as such. Neither activity is anti-Colombian, and neither is done with the will to destroy Colombia's image. To the contrary, such communication will help improve matters in the long run.

Silence hasn't worked for Colombian society, or Colombian cycling. So here's to trying out the alternative in the new year. I'm happy to see that others already agree.