ZIPAQUIRÁ, Colombia – As his country grapples with an increase in the death toll from Covid-19, a booming economy and clashes between protesters and riot police, cycling phenomenon Egan Bernal has given his Colombian compatriots a rosier vision of their nation.
Bernal, who in 2019 became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, on Sunday won the second most important stage race in his sport, the Giro d’Italia, which lasted three weeks, and won his jersey. champion rose, known as maglia rosa.
“This is something Colombia needed, considering everything that has happened to the country,” said David Ortiz, a circus artist who cycled to Zipaquirá, Bernal’s hometown, near from the capital of Bogotá, to watch Sunday’s last stop on a big screen TV in a crowded outdoor plaza.
Indeed, Bernal’s triumph was rare good news amid the bad luck of Colombia, where nearly five weeks of anti-government protests sparked by economic misery resulted in at least 25 deaths, roadblocks that crippled the economy. and the burning of the government. police offices and stations.
What rights groups claim to be a disproportionate police force against protesters has sparked international outcry, floods of bad press for Colombia and even calls for President Iván Duque to resign. All of this comes as Colombia has one of the highest per capita Covid-19 death rates in the world.
“The only thing that hasn’t beset Colombia are locusts and a blood-red sea,” said Evan Ellis, a professor who follows Colombia at the US Army War College.
In Italy, on the other hand, the last three weeks have been a sort of Colombian spring. Fans along the Giro’s 2,156 mile route waved Colombian flags and urged Bernal, who rides for the Ineos Grenadiers team and finished the race 89 seconds ahead of runner-up Damiano Caruso of Italy.
A 24-year-old tousled-haired rock climbing specialist, Bernal made his mountain biking debut in the Andes, often training above 10,000 feet, which helped him become a fierce competitor in the Alps and the Alps. Pyrenees. After a back injury forced him to withdraw from the 2020 Tour de France, he made his return to this year’s Giro, holding the overall lead for the final two weeks of the 21-stage race.
After his dominant victory on the 16th stage over the cloud-shrouded 15,000-foot-high Giao Pass, an Italian television station proclaimed him “King of the Dolomites”.
“When I just arrived and realized that I had won, it was an incredible feeling. I can’t describe what I feel inside, ”said the usually reserved and soft-spoken rider, who learned to ride a bike under the supervision of his father, a security guard and amateur cyclist. “Greetings to everyone in Colombia. Honestly, thank you for everything. This victory is for all of you. Hope this gives us something to be happy about in the midst of all that we are going through.
But even as he headed for victory, Bernal kept a close eye on Colombia and urged Duque to “find a solution to this chaos”. The cyclist added on his Instagram account: “Governing a country is not easy, but the people in power are supposed to know how to do it. It is their responsibility. “
Duque, who over the weekend ordered army troops to help restore order amid increasingly violent protests, was able to change the subject on Sunday after Bernal won and his teammate and compatriot, Daniel Felipe Martínez, came fifth.
“Both reflect the talent, hard work, dedication and resilience of Colombian youth,” said the president, who cheered on Bernal throughout the race.
“This victory is for all of you. Hope this gives us something to be happy about in the midst of all that we are going through.
In kissing the Giro champion, Duque joins a long list of Colombian politicians who, in troubled times, used sporting triumphs to try to change the national narrative.
In 1993, when car bombs and assassinations were ordered by cocaine king Pablo Escobar, the national football team qualified for the World Cup by beating Argentina 5-0. The victory sparked celebrations and allowed then-president César Gaviria to proclaim a new era of optimism.
“Today more than ever, we can look forward to our present and our future with pride,” said Gaviria in a crowded Bogotá stadium, awarding the Boyacá Cross, the country’s highest honor, to the coach of the team.
In 2014, when another Colombian cyclist, Nairo Quintana, won the Giro d’Italia, then-president Juan Manuel Santos attempted to exploit the euphoria to promote peace negotiations with Marxist insurgents. who ultimately ended a 50-year guerrilla warfare.
Likewise, sports debacles can weaken governments, said Gustavo Duncan, a Colombian scholar and columnist who often writes on cycling. In 1982, President Belisario Betancur waived Colombia’s commitment to host the 1986 World Cup due to high costs. It was the first in a series of coups to his government that included a volcanic eruption that killed 23,000 people and a bloody guerrilla siege in the capital.
Duque tried and failed to win the 2030 World Cup. He then decided to co-host this year’s Copa América, the most important soccer tournament in Latin America. However, after tear gas fired by riot police disrupted a May 12 soccer match, the event was moved to Argentina.
“We’re not even able to host a football tournament,” Duncan said. “It sounds ridiculous.”
Cycling here is almost as popular as soccer, and Colombia has produced more champion cyclists than any other Latin American nation. The country’s late Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, has written a book on cycling, and Colombia’s best-known artist, Fernando Botero, has painted cyclists.
In Cali, the epicenter of recent protests, a smile crossed Simon Castro’s face as the security guard looked on his phone as Bernal sprayed champagne at the awards ceremony in Milan. Castro, who works in a municipal building closed in recent protests, said Bernal’s victory brought some relief to Colombia, where “things have been so dire.”
Protesters also followed Bernal’s victory, as they watched over roadblocks set up across the country.
Just outside Bogotá, unemployed college graduate Jorge Andrés Delgado said Bernal’s victory inspires protesters to keep pushing their demands, which include a guaranteed basic income for the poor and a range grants.
“With persistence and struggle you can make a difference,” he said, adding: “Whether it’s cycling or protests, Colombia is beautiful.”
—Kejal Vyas and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this article.
Corrections and amplifications
The last names of former Colombian President Belisario Betancur and Colombian cyclist Nairo Quintana were mistakenly given as Betancourt and Quitana, respectively, in an earlier version of this article. (Corrected May 30)
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