Mexico's Sports Reflect Its Society

One hundred and one, 22, 1. That was the final Olympic medal count for the NAFTA partners: the United States, Canada, and Mexico respectively.

Mexico earned a bronze in race walking. The lone Mexican medal in 1992 in Barcelona - a silver - was also in race walking. Now, as then, the Mexican legislature is calling for an official inquiry to lay blame for what the public believes was an awful performance.

When looked at with a knowledge of sports, they're wrong. When examined really deeply, however, they are more correct in their disdain of the system than they realize. Mexico's attitude toward sports says a great deal about its society.

On the surface, a country of 93 million (more than three times the population of Canada) should have had more success. There were high hopes for more medals not only in walking, but in the undisputed national sport of soccer and, of course, in the marathon - where current New York and London marathon winners are Mexicans.

No surprises here

Mexico, in spite of not winning more medals, did as well as expected. If the marathon had been a team event and scored as cross country meets are, the Mexicans would have won the gold. Their three runners were all in the top 15, two in the top 10. No other country had all three marathon participants (the maximum allowed per nation) in the top 30. Mexicans have always been excellent distance runners.

Mexico's soccer team played well. Rarely has Mexico been ranked among the best in the world, but it reached the final eight before losing in a hotly contested match to the gold medal winners, Nigeria. Since Mexico has never gone further than the quarter finals in any major international soccer competition, what more could have been expected?

The top Mexican race walker was disqualified from each race when he was up with the leaders. Gliding - or floating - were the technical (and questionable) calls. In diving and synchronized swimming, Mexico had competitors in the top 10. When the available pool of athletes and the conditions under which Mexicans train are considered, that's decent.

The Mexican public expects instant success without laying the foundation first. There is no way that Mexico could or should have a permanent Olympic training facility as extensive as that of the United States. We're talking culture. Sports are an integral part of Anglo education systems. There are rightful howls of protest when sports are cut back in US inner city schools for budgetary reasons. There are also extracurricular organized sports in almost all US communities, from baseball's Little Leagues to midnight basketball.

Mexico has almost none of these advantages. Children simply do not grow up with organized sports. Yes, there are a few Little Leagues and scattered community gymnasiums, but nothing comparable to countries where sports are part of everyday life. The average school child gets about two hours a week of physical activity, typically in a cramped concrete courtyard playing volleyball.

Even in soccer the junior program is weak, with only a few professional teams having private age-group competitions. Without the proper fundamentals, and with most soccer experience coming from playing in the streets or on poorly maintained rural fields, Mexico is barely able to field one team of international caliber.

Mexican marathon runners complain bitterly about the lack of financial support, but prize money from international winnings allows them to train individually.

Bureaucratic sports structure

One thing Mexico does have is a bureaucratic sports structure: state associations and national federations in each sport.

In the mid-1970s, I was president of the Jalisco (the state where Guadalajara is located) Table Tennis Association. For two years I attended monthly meetings with other association presidents. Their main concern was to organize parades on national holidays. Unfortunately, raising funds to obtain better coaches was never mentioned. Politics and incompetence abounded, and little help was given to the youths the officials were supposed to be serving.

In short, Mexican sports can be seen as a microcosm of Mexican society as it is currently being mismanaged.

*Richard Seid, an American who has lived in Mexico for 24 years, writes on Mexican politics and society.

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