Colombia IS passion …

A few weeks ago, everyone I knew was talking about the finals of the Conde Godo, biting nails and grinding teeth with every last serve of Santiago Giraldo.He’s ranked 37 in the ATP now … the highest ranked male Colombian in the history of tennis. (Isner’s ranked 11, but I’d venture lots of people in the US say, “Isner who?”)

Last week, every Colombian I know had their TVs on to watch the last leg of the Giro d’Italia … and I think pretty much all of us cried when the crowd started to sing the national anthem to celebrate Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran’s victories. (First and second place — a historic day for Colombian sports).

The next day, Colombia’s front pages were plastered with Falcao and how he’s not going to the world cup. (Tears were shed again). When he initially got hurt earlier this year, this youtube video went viral, loosely translated “God, I know there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, but please cure Falcao so he can make lots of goals.”

Today, in Amelia’s school, all classrooms will be showing the opening ceremonies of the World Cup in Brazil.
And now everybody’s waiting for Saturday morning. Work schedules are getting jiggled, changed around. Classes in institutes have been canceled. The entire country will be paralyzed for the 90 minutes of Colombia’s first world cup confrontation in 16 years. Yeah. It’s a BIG BIG DEAL since Colombia hasn’t gone to a World Cup since the era of Pibe Valderrama and  Faustino Asprilla (who later became known for his, um, sizable …nevermind. I think they had to use an Amazonian Bamboo Palm leaf for that cover shot.)

In fact, June 15th are presidential elections and pretty much everybody says that voter turnout and how Colombians vote will depend on the results of the Colombia/Greece game on the 14th. (A little twisted, but it’s the reality). There’s a story that during a national crises (I don’t remember which one) in the 1990s, some TV channels put on an old game between Colombia and Argentina, one in which Colombia won six to zero, to pacify the country. There’s a great film called Golpe de Estado based on this game and a guerilla/military group in the mountains that make peace to watch the game together. An absurd reality.

The point is, Colombians live, breathe, and adore their athletes.

There’s a tale (not fact checked) that when Lucho Herrera, one of Colombia’s most famous cyclists pre-Nairo/Rigoberto who won the Vuelta Espana in 1987, was kidnapped by the guerilla, there was such an outcry that the guerilla released him right away. It’s bad press to kidnap a national hero. (The magazine headline says: Lucho Herrera: Victory of a People) His victory in the Vuelta Espana was Colombia’s victory. His kidnapping was Colombia’s kidnapping.

When Hincapie rode with Lance Armstrong in all seven of Armstrong’s Tour victories (yeah, yeah, I know) … I remember listening to the telecast one day and the sports reporters going mad, “There goes our countryman. Here comes Colombia, ripping  past the other riders. He’s the champion of this leg! The winner! BRAVO COLOMBIA!”
I turned to Cesar. “Isn’t he American?”
Cesar shrugged. “Not today.”
And not today was true. George Hincapie, born of Colombian parents, was Colombian the years he rode with Lance Armstrong. (Though, admittedly, nobody shouts to loud about his Colombian heritage anymore.)

This past year, Colombia had the only national team riding in the Giro d’Italia. Somebody told me (and, no, I haven’t fact checked any of this, either) that the team had made a pact that in every single mountain leg, one of their riders would do a breakaway. They’d rotate riders, practically kill themselves to make huge strides and distance between the Colombian rider and peloton, and, in turn, bring Colombia to the forefront of every television around the world — the Colombia we, who live here, love. AND their job was to make any Colombian look good, even those not riding with the national team. In other words, an entire team of Colombians was in the Giro to support other Colombians regardless of who they rode with (eg Nairo and Rigoberto).

This is insanely smart marketing of a country that hasn’t fared too well in the media.

Colombian athletes reciprocate the love. Santiago Giraldo, instead of signing his name on the camera after a winning match, often signs “I love you, Colombia.” The entire country held their breath when the first Colombian women reached Everest’s summit in 2007, and Ana Maria Giraldo unfurled the Colombian flag at the summit.

Colombian athletes often thank Colombia first. They have a deep-rooted feeling of nationalism and love for their country and how this country formed them. And it’s something I really love about Colombia. Everybody feels part of something great when a Colombian accomplishes great things.It’s a magical thing to feel an entire country vibrate with pride, stand behind a single athlete — something that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Maybe it’s because Colombians are tired of bad press. Maybe it’s because of the non-stop jokes about cocaine and Pablo Escobar and the lure of the white lines … really, it’s not original and not funny to laugh about someone else’s war. Every Colombian I know has suffered because of our drug habits in the US and Europe and around the world. Maybe it’s simply the passion of the Latino.

Nevertheless, people who never watched cycling before are experts. (Admittedly, the tradition of awesome Colombian cyclists goes back a long way). Taxi drivers, waiters, lifeguards, doctors, engineers, hell … even me … can talk, with a certain degree of knowledge balanced by lots of bullshit about  Falcao’s injury and physical therapy, Santiago Giraldo’s coach change, Nairo Quintana’s favorite breakfast cereal, Mariana Pajon’s (BMX world champion and gold medalist) lucky underwear. (Actually, I don’t really know if she has lucky underwear, but I bet it wouldn’t take long to find out.)

Colombians are involved and slightly obsessed about their international athletes. I didn’t understand it when I first arrived. I thought, “It’s just another game.” Part of that comes from coming from such a big country. We have many, many athletes that stand out, win medals. The closest I’ve seen in the States to this kind of fervent pride is regional — when Nevada rallied behind the San Francisco 49er quarterback Kapernick, a University of Nevada, Reno alumni and former football player.

But that’s just a speck of what an entire country experiences here. American football is a national sport — pretty small potatoes from a world view. Kapernick is a guy that nobody will know outside of that sport’s fanbase. What happens in Colombia is national pride for international sports achievements. It’s insanely beautiful to see an entire country, entire country celebrate the athletes that wear their flag in the world arena of sports and, in turn, see those athletes celebrate their country.

And now, the World Cup is here. And Colombia is ready to face the Titans. And while the soccer team battles in Brazil, an entire country will pretty much shut down. I’m bracing myself for national anxiety, celebrations, tears and hijo de putas. The entire country shouts, oohs, curses, and cries together. You don’t even have to be watching the game to know what’s going on. Listen to the country. They’ll tell you.

A bit obsessed. Yep. But it makes for a fantastic ride and emotional journey to follow, sweat, suffer, and celebrate.Plus, I get loads of cool vocabulary.