We hear all the time that whatever does not kill you, makes you stronger. I, on the other hand, believe that anything that does not eliminate you from existence simply makes you smarter. For instance, after surviving the swine flu, Y2K, my sister’s ballet recital and three of the five “Twilight” movies, I am pretty confident in saying that I have learned a lot about life. The main piece of knowledge I have taken from my survival is that, as film director Sergio Leone put it, everything has a good side, a bad side and an ugly side.
Sports are no exception. I never felt so happy in my life as when FC Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta scored from outside the box in stoppage time to eliminate Chelsea from the 2009 Champions League and clinched a ticket to the final they eventually won. It was the best experience in my life not only because my team made it to the final of the world’s most prestigious competition at the club level, but also because my atheist friend — who is also a Barcelona fan — called me a few seconds after the goal was scored, screaming that he now believes in God. I mean, seriously, who could imagine that a single sport could make so many people happy?
On the other side of the coin, however, is the bad side of sports. This is best exemplified in the Zimbalist brothers’ documentary “The Two Escobars.” The film is about how Colombian drug cartels used soccer clubs during the 1980s and 1990s to clean the money earned through drug trafficking. Although the investment in Colombian soccer developed domestic talent in an unprecedented manner — several Colombian clubs became superpowers in the continental cups, and the national team was even declared the favorite to win the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States — the negative results often overshadowed any improvements.
The drug cartels — through soccer clubs and other forms of civil society — became a powerful social institution in Colombian society. This did not only harm the fairness and legitimacy of the game, but it also harmed the country itself by weakening political institutions and terrorizing the population.
The bad side of sports in Colombia reached its peak during the 1994 World Cup, when the national team failed to meet the high expectations after being eliminated in the first round of the tournament. There are numerous facts suggesting that drug cartel leaders lost huge amounts of money in bets and as a consequence many players were threatened with their lives.
On July 2, 1994, defender Andrés Escobar — the captain of the national team, who scored an auto-goal in the 2-1 loss to the U.S. — was murdered by Humberto Castro, a bodyguard for members of a prominent cartel. It is still debated whether Escobar’s death was actually a direct consequence of gambling losses; however, what cannot be argued is that the violent culture generated in Colombia during the era of the drug cartels, when mixed with sports, produced a vicious culture that at some points became anti-humanitarian.
Finally, there is the ugly side of sports. You know what I find really unappealing? Hypocrites. These people are opportunists who will say anything to get what they want. This is the case of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is now using golf as a populist tool to attract the masses and shadow his terrible administration of the country. When professional golfer Jhonattan Vegas won the Bob Hope Classic last Sunday — becoming the first Venezuelan to win a PGA Tour event — Chávez did not waste any time to appear in the cameras to mention that he is not an enemy of golf and that this is a great accomplishment for the Latin American Republic.
Chávez is simply using this patriotic accolade to appeal to the nation, as he usually does. This was clearly seen when he remarked on national television that “[Vegas] beat all the gringos” —taking advantage of the population’s antagonism with so-called American imperialism; however, those are only words. As I have learned through life, actions speak louder than words.
Chávez has paralyzed the development of the sport in Venezuela by closing private golf courses — including the one Vegas learned to play on — to build houses for the poor. And although this seems to be for a good cause, what is the cost for Venezuela? Not only is he harming a sport, but he is also dismantling the country’s democracy by closing golf courses without a fair agreement or consent with the courses’ owners.
The bottom line is that Chávez is using sports to promulgate anti-democratic policies that fail to produce the social benefits he promises. Venezuela’s economy has contracted significantly in recent years, while most Latin American countries are showing positive signs of economic growth. Caracas, the country’s capital, is currently the most violent city in the world. The housing supply has decreased in every year since he rose to power in 1999. The unnecessary nationalization of industries and the overdependence on oil show that Chávez should focus more on doing a good job and less on using sports as a means of manipulation. The good thing to know is that people in Venezuela are living and as they keep on surviving they get smarter. The last legislative elections in Venezuela showed this, as the opposition won a majority of votes for the first time in two decades.