Rendering our lives to be believable

In my last post, I discussed issues surrounding Nairo Quintana's win at the Giro, in the context of political appropriation, and people's willingness to take credit for that victory. Today, I'd like to continue in that general path, while addressing far larger issues. So large, in fact, that I'm not sure I can do it in one post, or that I'm even fully qualified to do so. This is because the issues at hand, as I see them, are national identity, class divisions, a nation's image and self awareness. Let's see how I do.

Meet mom and dad
Among the many actions by the press at a time like this which fans of the sport in Colombia find objectionable, one reigns supreme. It's a pet peeve for many, in part because of how predictable it is: the interview with the rider's parents. To many, it seems useless, degrading, and insulting. In part because it treats the athlete and his family as a sideshow spectacle, rather than as a professional athlete who is competing at the highest level of a sport.

First, let me say that I fully understand the objection to these types of interviews, in part because they feel exploitative. But me even typing that word, "exploitative", hints at something that is seldom spoken of in Colombian society. Something that I think has come into focus for me after years of living abroad. Let me explain.

The manner in which these interviews are usually conducted is indeed objectionable. But not just because they don't treat the athlete with respect (as many have said). They are curious and unpleasant to watch because of what they reveal, which is Colombia's monumental class divisions. As I see it, Colombia's countryside and its inhabitants (not to mention parts of the country that are actual jungles) are almost as foreign to many in cities like Bogota, as they are to actual foreigners. The same can be said of individuals from other social classes. Yes, I know social divisions exist in every country, but they are so drastic in Colombia that these interviews have a certain voyeuristic quality to them. The power dynamics are also clearly askew in these scenarios.

The same can be said of coverage of the sport by the Colombian press, which just like that of the international media, often portrays Nairo Quintana (and past athletes like him) as little more than the son of a "poor farmer who had nothing growing up". This is because to many in Colombia's larger cities, the story of Nairo Quintana being "poor" is as compelling and "exotic" as it is to those in North America and Europe. And the Colombian press seems to know that. Through all this, there's an undertone of class at play. This is, after all, a man from "down there" who is now in Europe. Showing his original surroundings, a glimpse into his home town, and his family underscores that point. And that sentiment, as much as we Colombians want to believe is exclusive to the foreign press, is alive and well within our very country. 

And yet, I have to admit one thing to you. When interviewing a Colombian rider just two weeks ago through Skype, I saw his mother pop into the frame. Dinner was ready, and she was letting him know. We were out of time, but I made a note to myself, knowing we'd be doing another Skype call soon. "Talk to his mom."

Esteban Chaves' family (photo: Manual For Speed)

Esteban Chaves' family (photo: Manual For Speed)

My note about speaking with his mother, I honestly believe, was grounded in my interest in topics beyond cycling, rather than the ones mentioned above. Am I in denial about my reason for wanting to do this? I don't believe so. From the start, I've tried to look beyond cycling, beyond the podium and the picture of the rider crossing the finish line with his arms raised. In the context of Colombia this means delving well outside of cycling, because the interconnected nature of a sport that is so culturally embedded is undeniable. 

It's for this reason that at the Giro last year, I spoke with Darwin Atapuma about his love for classical music, with Robinson Chalapud about his playlist before a time trial, and about his friend (a religious minister) who sends him encouraging prayers on a daily basis during a stage race. I also spent one very long drive with team director (and retired professional) Oliverio Rincon discussing nothing more than his cattle farm, and the realities of managing such an operation from afar. I later spoke with his wife and kids about this as well. Leonardo Duque gave me four recipes, and showed me pictures of the Colombian dishes he'd managed to produced while living in France.

I didn't do this simply out of sheer curiosity, but because these things (to me) paint a bigger picture. One I've come to appreciate and love after living outside Colombia. It's not that I've "broken free" or gotten "beyond" a previous way of thinking. I just see that others have an interest in Colombian culture and society, all because of cycling. This, to me, could be a partial answer to Colombia's fundamental dilemma as posed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his Nobel Prize lecture. It's one I've mentioned here on the blog before, so forgive me for repeating myself."

...our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

Before you label me insane, please allow me to tell you that I don't think I'm answering Marquez's concern by asking Darwin Atapuma about classical music. I'm not that delusional. But I do see how eventually we can render ourselves as real, and as believable by painting a larger picture. One that is not limited to sport. This goes for all of us, not just Colombians.

Maybe I've grown tired of utilitarian cycling coverage (though I know it has its place), and always look for what's around the corner (or literally coming into frame, as was the case with the rider's mother). I don't know that I'll ever fully get there, but I'll keep trying with riders from just about anywhere. And I keep enjoying writing that does this. Because I must admit that I'll always be interested in the fact that a rider who lined up at the Tour of Dubai had to take days off from working as a guard at the local jail to compete in the race.

I'd like to think that our enjoyment in sport can grow when put into bigger context. I don't think interviews with a rider's parents are doing that exactly...but I'd like that door to stay open for those of us who remain curious about these matters. Because I believe that sport, as it manifests itself in different societies, is a form cultural expression. It reveals so much about a people, and in this case, it reveals so much about a country whose positive side I eagerly want to share with the world.

So while I too have mixed feelings about the way that athlete's families are often depicted on Colombian television, I must admit that during my next Skype call with this one rider, I'm going to talk to his mom. And I believe in my heart, that I'll be doing so for a different reason. I won't be changing the perception of an entire country. Not even close. But I do dream of a time when we can render our lives to be believable.

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

(for my interview with Corey Shouse Tourino Ph.D. go here)