Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Unimpressive Medal Haul Expected at Beijing

Humberto Márquez*

CARACAS, Aug 5 2008 (IPS) - Some 1,200 athletes from Latin America and the Caribbean will be taking part in the Olympic games in Beijing, but only a handful stand a real chance of landing a medal, to judge from their past performance and their own expectations.

Medals may be in the offing in team sports like football, baseball, volleyball or field hockey. But in disciplines based on individual performance, the region is not expected to shine, with the exception of a few realistic contenders from Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations.

“All of the medals won by Latin America and the Caribbean combined will be less than those taken by major powers like the United States or China,” Venezuelan sports journalist Cándido Pérez told IPS. “You can see the North-South gap in sports achievement, which is one of resources, technology and organisation.”

In the history of the modern Olympic games, from Athens in 1896 to Athens in 2004, athletes from Latin America and the Caribbean have won 490 medals, a mere 3.9 percent of the 12,550 awarded. And Cuba alone accounted for 63 of the region’s 126 gold medals.

But Cuba, where promoting sports has been the socialist government’s policy since the 1959 revolution, is now “experiencing a decline because of limited availability of resources compared to its industrialised rivals, the retirement of athletes who have not been replaced by strong successors, and the departure from the island of other athletes,” said Pérez.

Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, other strong performers in the past, have modest to optimistic expectations and chances.

For Brazil, Beijing is a springboard for pushing its bid to host the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, a privilege only enjoyed so far in the region by Mexico, in 1968.

Brazil expects to take home medals in volleyball, because of its international stature in the sport, and the fact that for decades it has been the best managed sport in Brazil, to the point that its leading light, Carlos Nuzman, is president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

But what fans are most hoping for is the gold medal in men’s football, the only prize not yet achieved by Brazilian football, which has won five FIFA World Cup titles.

Brazilians will be keeping a close eye on Ronaldinho Gaúcho, who was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Brazil’s hopes of joining Argentina, which won the gold medal in football in 2004 in Athens, and Uruguay, the champion in 1924 in Paris and 1928 in Amsterdam, would seem to be pinned on Ronaldinho’s extraordinary talent.

For the last two decades, Brazil has had a well-defined sports promotion policy, with a Ministry of Sports, “Olympic villages” – programmes for slum children – and a government system of scholarships that has been accompanied by the growth of sports sponsorship by the private sector.

In Beijing, 277 athletes from South America’s giant will take part in 32 disciplines, and their highest hopes are focused on track and field, judo, men’s and women’s football, volleyball, beach volleyball and sailing.

Argentina, which is sending 136 athletes to compete in 20 disciplines, took gold in Athens in men’s football and basketball.

In football, Argentina has a star of its own to compete with Ronaldinho – his young former teammate Lionel Messi, who is awaiting a final ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), expected Wednesday, on whether or not he will be allowed to travel to China despite the resistance of his club, FC Barcelona.

But in basketball, Argentina “is now a step behind” where it was, veteran sports reporter Sergio Danishewsky told IPS. “It has the same team” that won Argentine basketball’s first-ever gold medal in Athens, “while others, like the United States, Spain or Lithuania, have improved greatly,” he said.

In women’s hockey, however, the expert said there is not only a new generation of players, but also a change in technique. The young women, who won the Women’s Hockey World Cup in 2002 in Australia, hope to do better than the bronze medal that they earned four years ago.

Argentina may also capture medals in rowing, sailing and tennis, depending on how well recovery goes for David Nalbandián, the country’s top tennis player, who has suffered from a hernia and hip problems.

The 85 athletes who will participate in 22 disciplines for Mexico, by contrast, will not have much of a presence in team sports, except beach volleyball. The president of the local Olympic committee, Felipe Muñoz, said he was hoping for eight medals: in track and field, boxing, canoeing, diving, weightlifting, Taekwondo, archery and sailing.

Among its strongest contenders are archer Juan René Serrano, Paola Espinosa in diving, race walker Eder Sánchez, María Espinoza in Taekwondo, and Tania Calles in sailing.

In the field of sports, Mexico is suffering divisions. In track and field, the presidents of two federations, neither of which is recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), are travelling to Beijing. And former champion sprinter Ana Guevara, who took silver in Athens, has refused to compete for her country because of corruption and cronyism.

Like in other countries, winners will receive cash incentives. The Mexican telephone company, Telmex, which belongs to magnate Carlos Slim, offered 230,000 dollars over the space of four years to gold medal winners.

Several stars from Cuba are flying to China: hurdler Dayron Robles and three women athletes – Yargelis Savigne (triple jump), Osleydis Menéndez (javelin), and Yipsi Moreno (hammer throw). The Dominican Republic is sending 400m hurdler Félix Sánchez. And Panama will be represented in the long jump by Irving Saladino, nicknamed “the Panamanian kangaroo”.

Renowned track and field competitors are also heading to Beijing from the English-speaking Caribbean, a well-known source of top athletes, who benefit from close ties to universities and clubs in the United States and Canada.

Jamaica will participate with sprinter Usain Bolt, the current 100m world record holder (9.72 s), Asafa Powell, the former 100m world record holder (9.74 s), and the current Olympic 200m and world 100m champion, Veronica Campbell-Brown.

The Bahamas, meanwhile, boasts high jumper Donald Thomas, while other athletes from the Caribbean have a realistic chance of winning medals in the relay races.

The Andean region, on the other hand, has low expectations. Many of the 68 participating Colombians, 27 Chileans, 25 Ecuadoreans, 12 Peruvians and six Bolivians are athletes who qualified for the Olympics merely by meeting the IAAF “B” standard, rather than the “A” standard.

Venezuela is an exception among the Andean nations, because of the heavy injection of windfall oil profits ahead of Beijing – 300 million dollars – and President Hugo Chávez’s determination to send a record number of competitors to this year’s games: 109, compared to the 48 who went to Athens.

The oil-rich nation “is growing fast towards becoming part of the elite of the sports world. It’ll take us two Olympic cycles, in order to take 150 competitors in 2012 and 200 in 2016,” said the president of Venezuela’s Olympic Committee, former sports minister Eduardo Álvarez.

As part of its payment for Venezuelan oil, Cuba has sent hundreds of sports trainers to the country in the last few years.

Women’s and men’s volleyball, and women’s softball, which could bring a medal, have increased the chances of a decent performance by the delegation, which also includes swimmers, gymnasts, weightlifters and competitors in combat sports, in which Caribbean nations have always stood out. Latin America’s first gold medal was won in Paris in 1900 by Cuban fencer Ramón Fonst.

Pérez, however, said Venezuela’s “delegation is large, but at the cost of taking second-tier athletes who can’t aspire to reaching the podium, and the Cuban and Venezuelan trainers know that.”

Álvarez hopes his country will take home medals in boxing, fencing, Taekwondo and softball.

But his predecessor, Fernando Romero, remarked that “I think that’s an over-exaggeration. It’s more likely for one of our writers to win the Nobel Prize for literature.”

Moved by passion or politics, Latin Americans are heading to Beijing with enthusiasm, even though they have little hopes of making headway among the traditional sports powers like the United States, Europe, countries of the former Soviet Union, or the host country, China.

*With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Mario Osava in Brazil and Emilio Godoy in Mexico.

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