Two Keys for Olympic Success in the Developing World
Green, a rowing channel that radiated beauty during the 1968 Olympic games hosted by Mexico is today nothing more than a neglected, smelly, green water spot in the middle of Mexico City. Near the finish line, the screen where once people could watch the race from the stands is not working anymore, and the artificial channel is sinking under the common alibi of “there is no money”. It is not surprising that there is no money for rowing; most athletics funds in Mexico are allotted to popular sports, principally football. Even then, Mexico has yet to win a World Cup and it has taken until the 2012 Olympics games for Mexico to win for the first time the football competition.
Despite having numerous talented men in developing and third world countries, it is always clear that most of the Olympic medals are earned by athletes from industrialized countries. During the 2012 Olympic games the effect of development on athletic success is particularly clear: the USA leads the medal count but developing China is for the first time a very strong competitor for winning the overall medal count, with both countries earning more than 35 gold medals during the 2012 competitions.
Mexico in all its history has earned only 13 golden medals (the last one recently thanks to our football team), even less than Michael Phelps alone. So, if we consider that “development” is the key for China’s recent success, the question remains how can Mexico also harness its emerging potential. Clearly talent is not the only factor that is important for Olympic success, so is wealth.
Consider the example of the Mexican canoer Everardo Cristobal Quirino -a poor fisher from the small town of Urandén in Michoacán –who recently won the canoe/kayak flatwater World Cup, but unfortunately was eliminated during the first heats of the London Olympic games. His story is specifically inspiring because he managed to get out of poverty by doing what he used to do everyday: rowing on his canoe to fish in order to make a livelihood.
One might think that if Quirino can succeed, anyone can. Nevertheless, his case is most likely just a lucky strike. He didn’t eat properly or train properly, and he had to continue to fish daily to earn money for his family. It wasn’t until he won the World Cup that he received a real compensation for his work –in spite of failing now twice during Olympic games.
Another Mexican legend describes a desperate oarsman searching for a bowball for his boat and, as there are no such stores that sell rowing equipment in Mexico, he resorted to using a guava covered with tape instead. And unfortunately, he was disqualified from the race. (Perhaps the judges didn’t like to waste food, or maybe they would have accepted an apple or a tennis ball instead…)
While wealth clearly plays a role in providing opportunities for athletes to compete at the international level, it is not the only factor that determines success. There is also a cultural dimension of sports that impacts the everyday life and the mentality of the people, which is reflected in the caliber of national sports teams and individuals during games such as the Olympics.
I recently studied in Germany for a semester and one thing I noticed is that the streets and the parks were always full of people jogging. In contrast, Mexico does not have a strong exercising culture, and no economical incentives for sportsmen –such as university scholarships for athletes or money funds provided by the state. In Mexico there are no sports in our everyday life besides football and those mentioned by the Mexican comedians such as “Catch-the-bus runners” and “Cable Tennis”, which consists on throwing tennis shoes to the cables with an impressive amount of accuracy.
It could be argued that physical human differences are also important. Latin Americans tend to be smaller than Europeans for instance; but if that were the case then we should still be able to win lightweight sports. We as Mexicans lack an attitude that I learned from my former Ukrainian rowing coach that may be summarized as: “I row, ergo I win”, an attitude that made him stand out among other coaches as actually one of the best Mexico has ever had.
It seems that fear has thrown a curse over our athletes. Each time they’re on the home stretch the pressure tends to defeat them even before its adversary does. The thing here is, can we blame them for this? Of course sometimes it is a personal problem, sometimes it is a human mistake, but most of the times it is both because its own culture taught them conformism and they didn’t have the necessary support.
In contrast with most sportsmen from developed countries, they didn’t have the proper training and equipment; instead, they had twice the number of everyday responsibilities, and they always had in mind that they could have never made a living, or at least a career in competitive sports… they had to figure it out carrying the burden both of their lives and their passions at the same time.
Daniel Kapellmann is a member of Global21, a student network of international affairs magazines and a partner of FutureChallenges.