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Colombia's secret

Secret? What secret?

Should you want to avoid reading this article at lenght, I can wrap up its conclusion right now, in just one sentence: there is no secret.
Less than 20 years ago, Colombia was mainly known as the country the bad guys in “Miami Vice” came from. Only fifteen years ago, skating-wise they were virtually nonexistent. So I was wondering how come they’re today the strongest skating nation in the world… Well, I’ve got a simple and logic answer: The people implicated in skating over there, at all levels, has just done what must be done, in the right and proper way. From the officials that at the very least did what was expected from them, to the coaches that dearly wanted to improve themselves every day, to the patient and caring parents.
And their athletes? Champions are not made overnight. It takes a lot more than a magic touch to hear the national anthem and see the Colombian flag on the podium so often during the last few editions of World Championships. But it certainly has to do with good alchemy, combining the right measure of passion, talent, organization, sponsorship, mentality, discipline and work… a lot of work, no doubt.

In fact Colombia is at the top of the skating world today, and we can’t avoid envying them. Not only for their sporting successes, but also for the organization, logistics and preparation of their large teams and clubs, the mirror in which every other nation would like to see themselves reflected, even the Italians.
Hey, wait a minute: weren’t these the guys that came to learn technique and training methods in Italy during the ‘90’s? How could they achieve all this in a dozen years, are they really wizards?

I was shameless enough to get to sit down at the same table all this eminent people:
• Luz Mary Tristán, the first Colombian world champion, and the sexiest lady this sport has ever had
• Carlos Orlando Ferreira, Colombian Federation and Panamerican Confederation president
• Gillermo Gonzales, former vice-president CIC (until 2005)
• Elías del Valle and Ricardo Leni, national coaches

So I thank them all for their patience and kindness, and then proceed to fire the main question… Ladies and gentleman, what’s your secret?

Let the children come

If this was a debate between Italians, they would start shouting in unison, granted. But even on a debate this people show their world class. Mr. Ferreira takes the word: “The key to our success lies in a very specific basic planning. That is: children”. He goes on stating that in 1995 a specialized commission was created within the Colombian federation, having the explicit assignment of managing and developing the juvenile ranks of this sport. Since then, fully featured “skating festivals” are organized in the whole country, directed at children between 6 and 13 years old, where skill, handiness and dexterity have the priority over competition itself.
Yes, those festivals are truly enjoyable, for the children and for us alike”, explains gorgeous Mrs Tristan, with a deep warm voice that could melt my bearings. She follows: “Mind, in my club our 500 children…” .- WHAT!!!! How many, did you said?, I must interrupt her. “Oh, yes”, she says modestly, “we are not the only ones: there are quite a few clubs in the country with figures like that”, and the others nod confirming her statement. She goes on: “Those festivals and tournaments must take place during several days…simple qualification rounds are not enough, you know”.

Its coach Lenis’ turn: “We devised a laboratory for children in which they acquire dexterity and mobility, that are fundamental for the future athlete’s formation. Around our rinks you’ll see wooden structures similar to those the military uses for obstacles training: every day our children would exercise in that equipment, aiming to a complete physical development in order to become skilled skaters one day”.
Aside training”, follows his colleague Del Valle, ”we have about 30 annual events, from children contests at regional level, to a couple of national championships”.

Popularization, please

With such an approach, one more basic component to success adds to the equation: popularization of the sport. In 1993 the total number of registered Colombian speedskaters was about 300, today that number increased to over 13.000! How did you achieve that? Gonzales explains: “We did not stop at the normal children-parents-friends involvement to the sport. During these years, we’ve been carrying on a factual marketing campaign, with a definite strategy”. That strategy brought a 10 year long commercial contract between the federation and a once small privately owned company: Pastas La Muñeca. This flour products manufacturer invested about 100.000 dollars in the national team until 2007: an abnormal amount for our sport standards. But it was a sure bet: the public admiration and respect the national team collected during these last years has definitely paid back for the company, today a top national brand. By the way: the sponsor is actively involved in the federation’s annual planning and development.
The natural evolution to popularization at this stage is the arrival of new sponsors, and more sponsors attract the next essential element to a sport’s expansion…

TV, come to me!

Observe the media coverage during the last 2 or 3 World Championships: local media is usually ludicrous in comparison to the Colombian crew, which sometimes includes 30 persons or more, working in every format. They can boast journalists and photographers from major national newspapers, live radio interviews and race comments, and even live satellite TV transmissions. Football anyone?
I ask: How do you get this media coverage? Ferreira answers promptly: “For our federation athletes, coaches and journalists have exactly the same importance”.
I beg your pardon? “Yes”, he says, “we tend to do everything we can to grant a continuous stream of news to the media. They need to fill up as much pages and airtime as they can, so we help them with that”. But, excuse me Mr President: don’t they have enough with guerrillas, drug-lords and football? “Of course they do”, he asserts smiling, “but we mean good news, something our society badly needs. Little by little our successes made the public opinion veer the attention towards our sport. And public’s attention is what really sells.”
Amen to that, sir. In fact, skating idols even started to appear in national gossip publications and TV programs, just like any other star in show business.
Luz Mary makes me note that “initially, we involved journalists active in the cycling world (another very popular sport in Colombia). As for bike competitions, they could easily use their normal style to transmit and comment our own races: it was a radiophonic hit; yet another way to obtain the much desired popularity. Nowadays we have specialized journalists for every media format”.

How about technique?

Mr Lenis mentions that Giuseppe De Persio (an old Italian glory, for those young punters who’d never heard the name) “was in Colombia teaching us technique for more than a year”. Yeah, but how long was that?, I asked. “Oh, just last year”, Lenis says.
Mr Ferreira points out that from the beginning, the federal leadership tried to import means and methods to improve their skating technique and training, not only from foreign coaches but also from other sport’s specialists. In fact, the role of a certain Mr Begg >> was pivotal in Colombia’s development, and later on they counted on the expertise of the famous Argentinean master Carlos Lugea (now employed by the Spanish federation). As a result, their coaches have been gaining a great deal of know-how, and are able at present to produce world champions in industrial quantities. But they don’t keep sleeping on their own laurels: every year they organize at least one international seminar and/or convention for coaches and experts.
Nevertheless, everyone around the table agrees unanimously that they own a lot to Italy’s coaches. “They’re our mentors”, says Del Valle, “helped us a lot in our early stages. They created the model, and we are trying to evolve and improve it”. Their results confirm Colombians succeeded on the task. Abundantly.

Elias Del Valle is categorical on this subject: “We do not improvise coaches. We have a national school that licences whoever wants to teach skating: without that licence nobody can coach, without exception”. He continues: “Our federation was capable to integrate the administrative aspects with the technical ones. As the system worked out well, everybody believed in it, and when everybody believes, positive results follow soon”.
Primarily significant for them are also international competitions: “We are now invited to all major international tournaments or races, and we try to be in every one of them”, says Mr Ferreira. “Often we find ourselves being in an overwhelming superiority situation, but it does not matter: we believe that apart from our athlete’s growth, we can contribute to the international growth of this sport as well”. He’s right: in the last years we are observing in Colombia’s area a substantial boost of skating emerging countries like Venezuela, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, etc.- Venezuela has already conquered a few podiums at Worlds, the other mentioned countries are not far from it.
Mr Lenis concludes: "Our technical objective is to create the colombian style, a unique skating way that can be recognized (and copied) anywhere in the world”.

Politics

Oh, yes: politics has to do in all this too, inevitably. In Gonzales and Ferreira’s opinion (who knows better than them?), the winning tactic involves placing some of their own officials in every international body -on top of them, if possible. What for?, I ingenuously asked. They look at each other smiling, without answering… It certainly has worked wonders for the Italians in the last 50 years, but it seems that little by little Colombians are doing well in this task too. We better pray to have Ferreira & Co. ruling us all as soon as possible, considering the current state of our sport and its extraordinarily inept Italian leadership, capable of coming out with ridiculous diktats like the recent ban for certain Italian athletes to race WIC marathons prior to European Championships.

A question of attitude

Luz Mary says they don’t believe in “bio-types” or race qualities. “For colombian skaters”, she says,” victory comes thanks to their will to win, personal sacrifice and professionalism. All our effort is well rewarded as we hear our national anthem while we stand in the podium”.
Mr Diego Betancourt, another big player in Colombia’s skating, was passing by and overheard the conversation. He adds: “We feel the uniform in a unique way, and when we are on our skates we would kill ourselves to have gold. Bio-types? At the starting line we are all the same”.

Wait, there's more!

All these illustrious folks did not mention it, but we know for a fact that at the base of Colombia’s vertiginous growth lays a large chunk of solidarity.
I ask this nice people how come, in a country notorious for its poverty and underdevelopment, an expensive sport like this is second only to football in terms of popularity. They tell me touching stories that may belong to Hollywood dramas with happy endings: coaches that bought skates to talented but poor children, club officials that found jobs for underprivileged parents, school teachers that organized funds raises to get one of their pupils participate in an international tournament, and so on.
During Worlds in Italy (2004) I witnessed a moving exhibit of gratitude: two young Colombian athletes (with a couple of golds dangling from their necks), together with Mr Del Valle and their club’s coach, went to profusely express thanks to ROCES’s owner. This manufacturer had a generous gesture that, although it may be seen as a marketing shift by some, is worth mentioning nonetheless: while they were toddlers, he presented a complete pair of skates to many of the skaters that today hold World Championships medals.
And the athletes themselves hold high recognition not only to their coaches and parents, but to the officials as well. Not because they need to keep up appearances: they really mean it. I took the time to do a mini-poll between some of their top athletes while away from indiscrete ears, and the outcome was the same: they all agree on the efficiency, well-doing and honesty of their federation officials. Amazing, isn’t it?

Conclusion

Colombia finds itself on top of the skating world today because of long-sighted leaders, from their initial phase, had the ability to acquire the best things they could learn from the more advanced countries like Italy and USA (at that moment, at least), and to keep planning for greater objectives rather than their personal ambitions.
Now it’s time to get back the favour, as we really need to learn from them humbleness, honesty and discipline. In addition, we need a leadership that follows their –definitely logic- footsteps.
We must apply ASAP the “Colombian style” to our sport, and I’m not referring to the technique aspect only, obviously.

M. Bresin
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