The world cup, cycling, and the charm of irrationality

Lucho Herrera, Bogota, 1985

Lucho Herrera, Bogota, 1985

Having won two stages and the mountains classification at the Tour de France in July of 1985, Lucho Herrera was an ideal candidate to perform a ceremonial kick-off at a Millonarios game, the soccer team he'd followed as a kid from nearby Fusagasuga. Once asked, Herrera agreed to the honor, and traveled into Bogota's El Campín stadium to partake in the festivities.

1985 was a good year for fans of Millonarios, like it was for those who followed Herrera and cycling in Colombia. The team had nearly won the national championship the previous season (which would have been the club's 12th), and things were shaping up nicely in 1985, as Argentine Marcelo Trobbiani continued to show why he'd been one of the most promising players in Boca Juniors before coming to the Colombian club. Despite all this, Colombian soccer at large, on the world stage, was in a deplorable state.

How things change. Today, as Colombia's national team continues to impress at the World Cup, many cycling fans in Colombia have grown resentful of the attention and sponsorship money that the sport garners in comparison to cycling. In doing so, they pin one sport against the other, often siting those days in the mid-1980s, when a game in Bogota's El Campín stadium was well attended, not because of the teams playing, but because of the slight man from Fusagasuga who would be performing the ceremonial kick off.

Not all cycling fans or cyclists in Colombia are resentful of football, not by a long shot. Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Rubiano and many other professionals have expressed their excitement and support of the national team. Rigoberto Uran, a huge fan of the sport is even selling his own cycling version of the team's jersey in his online store.

Resentment of "the other sport" by some cycling fans is not unique to Colombia. In our case, it largely began to take shape in the lead-up to the 1990 world cup, when the national team qualified for the first time in twenty eight years, a huge accomplishment that received an equal response by the masses. Marketing budgets within large Colombian companies (the life blood of cycling) shifted accordingly, bringing an end to the Postobon and Pony Malta teams in Europe, as well as sponsorship to domestic races. All this happened as the International Coffee Pact ended, taking with it the Cafe De Colombia team, along with a sizable chunk of the country's economy. With that, those who chose to see sport fandom as a binary affair no doubt noticed that in 1990 (the first time that cycling and soccer in Colombia were at their peak, and faced off) cycling was dealt a devastating blow.

Today, in Colombia, both sports are riding high, and are facing off again as the world cup continues to grab both headlines and the hearts of fans (along with the advertising revenue that comes with them). This leaves cycling fans in Colombia (and elsewhere) to once again wonder what can be done by the organizers, teams and the federations in cycling to perhaps garner a tiny portion of the advertising dollars that go to sports like soccer. In doing so, the issues within cycling are simplified, and it's soccer or some other sport or entity that is to blame.

But cycling's issues have little to do with soccer, baseball or any other sport. Cycling's wounds are almost entirely self inflicted (and no, I'm not just talking about doping issues here), and even if there were no wounds to speak of, there's the simple issue of taste. One sport may attract audiences in one culture or another at a certain point in time, while another doesn't...and there's little that can be done about it. This is because trying to analyze sports too deeply can quickly send you down the path of trying to rationalize the irrational. Umberto Eco did so in his essay The World Cup Is For Pomps in 1978, going as far as to say,

In a certain sense I could agree with the Futurists, that war is the only hygiene of the world, except for one little correction: It would be, if only volunteers were allowed to wage it. Unfortunately war also involves the reluctant, and therefore it is morally inferior to spectator sports.

For those keeping score, that's an Italian Postmodernist referencing Italian Futurists, as he compared sport to  war in a less-than-flattering way. Ecco further commented on sports fans in particular, saying that the majority act like,

...sex maniacs regularly going to see (not once in their lifetime in Amsterdam but every Sunday and instead of) couples making love, or pretending to (something like the very poor children of my childhood, who were promised they would be taken to watch the rich eating ice cream).

You could also take the Ann Coulter route, and believe that soccer is a virus brought to the US by dirty foreigners like me, and that those who play are perhaps subhuman since they partake in a sport that does not use the hands (a key differentiator between man and less evolved animals, in her eyes).

In either scenario, I'm left to think that its probably best to not question certain aspects of our lives, so long as  they are kept within safe and unobtrusive levels. Is this willfully obtuse on my part? Perhaps. But it also makes me realize that sports in general make little sense, and neither does our passion or distaste for them.

Aerial shot of the crowd that gathered in Bogota to welcome back Colombia's team from the world cup

Aerial shot of the crowd that gathered in Bogota to welcome back Colombia's team from the world cup

Soccer and cycling, as well as jai alai and curling will all go through their struggles to garner and sustain audiences at different times and in different places. "There's no accounting for taste" they say, and in sports, I find that to be true. So could it be that the thing that is holding cycling back is not merely the UCI, doping scandals, bad management, race organizers, bad race schedules or the many other things we as fans discuss? Could it be that today, in most countries, the sport simply doesn't appeal to people because it doesn't suit their taste at this time? After all, the topics most of us mention as problems in cycling are never readily apparent even to a casual fan. But you know, perhaps it's best if I stop there, because in dissecting such matters (healthy as introspection may be), we can all loose sight of the best aspect about this and every other sport. Its irrationality. And that, I would argue, is part of its charm.