Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Las olimpiadas peruanas

The Olympics are on again, which means that NBC must remind everyone in this country that no one cares about anything that the Americans don't win. Though I am as swept-up as the next guy with the impressive swimming out there, the constant rah-rah becomes tiresome, overshadowed only by the singularly dumb "commentary" offered by the "sportscasters" who seem more interested in Philip Dalhausser's lack of hair than his playing ability. My good friend laloca seems to be upset that equestrian events are being given the short shrift in television coverage; I think that she should thank her lucky stars that she doesn't have to hear about how Gandalf really loves to eat carrots in the morning. I try to alleviate all the flag-waving by checking the medal tracker every day to discover heretofore unknown athletes from countries you wouldn't expect to get a medal. (For example, I see that Togo has won a bronze medal in kayaking! Why isn't there a story about that? I bet you it's big in Lomé right now...)

All this brings me back rwenty years to August 1988 when I was just starting my senior year of high school in Lima. Peru has never been one to make a huge presence in any international sport these days (in soccer, for example, I thank God for Bolivia for keeping Peru from the bottom of the pack of the South American World Cup standings), but that year the country sent a world powerhouse team for one sport: women's volleyball. Strange but true: Peru used to be a feared presence in women's volleyball.

To the delight of millions of Peruvians, the women made it all the way to the final game, where they played against the "Confederation of International States" -- which is to say, the Soviet Union, having just broken up and not figured out what to do in time for the Olympics. Given that the big event was happening in Seoul, the medal match got under way very late at night, probably around 2am or so. I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the game, even though it was a school night, although I was so tired I couldn't stay awake.

When I woke up, I turned on the TV to see what the final score was -- and discovered that the game was still going on.

Indeed, after soundly winning the first two sets, Peru subsequently lost the following two sets, leading to a do-or-die fifth set, with both teams trading points. The game was still going strong when my family realized that the school bus was on its way -- and with my school all the way on the other side of town and us not having a car, I had to race down the stairs to get the bus on time. Someone, probably Vicente, had a portable radio to listen to the rest of the game; I remember Jenny complaining about a lack of equestrian events being shown in Peru. (Some things really never change.)

The bus ride offered one of the more surreal images I will ever see. Despite the fact that it was rush hour and the route to school traversed some of the most traffic-laden roads in Lima (and that says something), there were barely any cars at all. The bus zipped to school in no time flat -- and the only people we saw on the street were all crowded around electronics stores, which had graciously turned on television sets in their display windows so that dozens of Peruvians stood staring, immobile, at a single screen.

When we got to school, the game was still on. A teacher had a portable TV in the trunk of their car and various teachers crowded around; we students were stuck with radios. I had never seen the final points until tonight when I happened upon a sketchy YouTube clip of the final ten minutes of the game:

If you look at this video, you will note around the 7-minute mark the point where Peru had this in the bag: 15-14, championship point, Peru serving. I distinctly remember this moment being transmitted over the radio. The ball went into the air --

And the transmission stopped. Silence.

Everyone who was listening at school basically let out a loud cry of "WTF?!" in both English and Spanish. What happened? Satellite feed? Sendero Luminoso? Crappy Peruvian 1980s technology? Aaaaigh!

Less than two minutes later, the feed came back. Just in time for us to hear the announcer say that the Soviets had just gotten the last point. 17-15. Peru lost.

Peruvian women's volleyball never came back to that high point on the international stage: despite being recognized as a major player throughout the 1980s, you will note that Peru is not playing in the Olympics this year in that event. The loss at this game still meant that Peru won the silver medal, one of only four won by Peruvian athletes at any Olympics. This merited a major celebration when they got back home, which remains memorable.

That is, maybe, until 2020. Since, apparently, if Alan García gets his way, Peru won't just be a major player at the Olympics: Peru will be the Olympics. Hell, that Great Wall ain't got nothin' on Macchu Picchu, man. Can Francisco Lombardi match an opening ceremony to the level of Zhang Yimou? And if the athletes can take Beijing's smog, how will they do in Lima? (Actually, Lima's probably better than Beijing in that department. Maybe.) There are those who think the idea of a Peruvian Olympics isn't so bad. Then again, this comes from the government so full of itself that it actually, seriously tried for a bid for the 2016 Olympics... even though the deadline had passed nearly a year ago.

Still, check out the "promotional video!" I, for one, am convinced.


laloca said...

it's probably just as well I'm missing the dressage competition - i'd never get to work this morning. and a horse named gandalf? the horror...

Middento said...

Appropriately, however, said horse is from New Zealand.