High-profile successes boost sports in Colombia

Colombian sport is vibrant and passionately followed by fans across the country. It is seen as a powerful instrument for social inclusion and community development, particularly as the country debates a settlement to long-running internal political conflicts. Despite fiscal austerity, the government, through sports institute Coldeportes, has been promoting sport for all. According to a mid-2015 report by Forbes magazine that examined public sector sports budgets across 20 Latin American countries, Colombia was ranked fourth by total spending. The report said the 20 countries were spending a combined $1.9bn on sporting venues, infrastructure and the training of athletes. Brazil was ranked in first with $842.4m (the lion’s share because of preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games), followed by Mexico with $233m, Chile with $213m and Colombia with $169.3m. The Colombian national football team is reportedly the 13th “most valuable” in the world, with this calculation based on aggregating the value of transfer fees for all players taking part in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The business sector is also benefitting from the development of sport in Colombia, including tourism, transport, and hotels and restaurants. Broadcasting rights and merchandising are also significant.

The textile industry, which manufactures and sells sports clothing and equipment for domestic and export markets, is also seeing significant benefit. Colombiatex, the regional trade fair held in January 2016 was, reported to have generated $313m worth of orders. According to ProColombia, the government agency that promotes non-traditional exports, orders included sport clothing, sports footwear and cycling wear. Creytex, a Medellín-based company, said it had received orders for 300,000 T-shirts ahead of the NFL Super Bowl 50 final in the US in February, including specially-designed shirts for fans of the two finalists.

Football Is Number One

Football is Colombia’s most popular sport, and the most important in overall economic terms. The performance of Colombian players and teams has improved in recent years, but 2015 saw a relative pause in this upward trajectory. After being ranked fourth in the world according to FIFA ratings, and reaching the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014 – for the first time ever – Colombia was less successful in 2015. In the Copa América championship held in Chile, the Colombian team was knocked out by Peru at an early stage; nor did it perform strongly in the qualifying matches for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. However, Colombian major division team Santa Fé won the Copa Sudamericana in December 2015, by defeating Huracán of Argentina on penalties.

International Profile

Colombian footballers have been highly successful. One of the most prominent is James Rodríguez, who was top scorer in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and went on to join Spanish club Real Madrid for an $86.7m transfer fee, making him one of the highest paid players in football. Other top players include Radamel Falcao, who plays for London-based Premiership team Chelsea, and David Ospina, goalkeeper for Arsenal, also in London.

There are 12 companies including Coca-Cola, Movistar, Chevrolet, Bancolombia and Caracol Televisión that sponsor the Colombian national team. Television broadcasting rights for matches in the top Colombian division, known as División Mayor or Dimayor, are an important part of the economics of the sport. Negotiations for those rights in 2015 led to an expanded reach for Win Sports, Colombia’s first domestic 24-hour sports channel. The channel is a 50-50 joint venture between local media company RCN (part of the Organización Ardila Lülle) and DirecTV (owned by AT&T of the US). In 2015 it reached additional distribution agreements with Movistar (owned by Telefónica), Claro TV (owned by América Móvil) and UNE-Tigo.

World football was deeply shaken in 2015 by a series of corruption scandals affecting not only its governing body FIFA, but also important regional federations such as CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation. Although Colombian football has been less seriously affected comparatively speaking, the scandal forced the resignation of Luis Bedoya Giraldo, president of the Colombian football association (Federación Colombian de Fútbol, FCF) and a senior CONMEBOL official in November. Bedoya voluntarily travelled to the US in late 2015, where he was arrested on wire fraud and racketeering charges. Ramón Jesurum Franco was appointed to replace him as head of the FCF. The FCF is a private sector nonprofit which has 70 affiliates – 36 professional football clubs and 34 supporters’ associations.

Strong Performance In 2015

The authorities believe 2015 was a good year for Colombian sports. The 20th National Games were held across multiple venues (mainly in Tolima and Chocó, but also with events in Bogotá, Ubaté, Nilo, Guarne, Rionegro and Cali). A total of 6000 athletes, representing the country’s 32 departments, took part in 48 track and field events. The games saw the establishment of seven world and ten national records, and a total of 1780 medals were awarded (of which 552 were gold). To carry out the games, capital investments totalling COP239bn ($88m) were spent on venues and a further COP9.4bn ($3.5m) on operations.

Colombia took part in the Pan-American Games in Toronto, where it sent 285 contestants and ended up ranked fifth in the overall medals table, winning 27 gold medals, 14 silver and 31 bronze. Colombia also came fifth in the Parapan-American Games.

A new national sports law was approved in Congress, with provisions requiring equal access to sport, recreation and physical activity across Colombian society. The law also establishes a national sports system and regulates sports bodies, incentives, sports venues and sporting infrastructure.

“Pause” For Cycling Team Colombia

Cycling is a long-standing and important sport, considered the second most popular in Colombia after football. Famous Colombian cyclists include Nairo Quintana, winner of the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and runner up of the Tour de France in 2013, and Rigoberto Urán, who finished second in the Giro d’Italia in 2014. In 2015 the sport experienced something of a setback when Coldeportes made the decision to stop sponsoring Team Colombia, the country’s main competitive team at the international level. Coldeportes faced the twin pressures of a limited overall budget due to fiscal austerity – triggered by the fall in government revenues because of the slump in oil prices – on the one hand, while on the other, there was upward pressure on spending due to the cost of participating in the Rio Olympics. While Coldeportes felt Team Colombia had performed well and achieved valuable publicity and exposure for Colombia at the Tour de France and other international events, it could not continue to be funded. Coldeportes president Andrés Botero said, however, that the team had not been permanently disbanded, only “paused”, and said that he hoped it might be re-launched in 2017 with the help of private sponsorship deals. Individual cyclists will continue to participate as members of Europe-based teams.

The most important annual cycling contest is the Vuelta a Colombia, a round-the-country race carried out in a number of stages, similar in concept to the Tour de France, and according to its organisers, one of the most prestigious races of its kind at a global level, after the French and Italian races and Spain’s Vuelta España. The 2016 race is due to take place between June 13 and June 26, and cyclists will begin in Cartagena. As the race is likely to come after the hoped-for signing of a peace settlement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the organisers want the 2016 contest to be known as the Vuelta de la Paz (Peace Tour). According to Jorge Ovidio González, an official at the Colombian cycling federation (Federación Colombiana de Ciclismo, FCC), The Vuelta de la Paz will have a very special meaning because this year the government and FARC guerrillas may sign a peace agreement, which will be followed by a new post conflict era, and just as that is happening we will have the Vuelta a Colombia right in the middle of it all, with five foreign teams, 20 Colombian teams, 13 daily stages and one rest day.” González said it would be the only sporting event that will be held in areas of recent fighting and social conflict.

Popular interest in protecting the environment and in healthier lifestyles has also promoted cycling as a means of transport. In the 1990s Bogotá introduced ciclovías or cycle-ways, the practice of closing off some main streets to cars on weekends and reserving them for pedestrians, joggers, skaters, and cyclists. The practice subsequently spread to other cities.

Full Sporting Calendar To 2019

By far the most important sporting event in 2016 will be the Olympic Games hosted by Rio de Janeiro in neighbouring Brazil. Although smaller in size, Colombia is also hosting a series of events scheduled both in 2016 and in the following three years. These include the Bolivarian Games to be hosted in Santa Marta in 2017, the Central American Games due in Barranquilla in 2018 and the 21st Colombian National Games scheduled for 2019. There is expected to be strong competition among cities looking to host the National Games of 2019. Candidate cities include a joint bid from the Eje Cafetero (the “coffee axis” composed of the departments of Risaralda, Caldas and Quindío) competing against separate bids from each of the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Atlántico and Santander. Coldeportes will run a selection process to assess the different departmental bids.

Olympic Expectations

Colombia approaches the 2016 Rio Olympics with raised expectations. The 2012 London Olympics were a high point for the country’s sporting history, as it won eight medals, the largest total Colombia has ever achieved at an Olympic games. Expectations are, therefore, focused on getting past that mark in 2016. According to Coldeportes, the department’s total investment in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics will be COP32.5bn ($12m), of which COP14.6bn ($5.4m) will be spent on its “supported athletes” programme, through a system of incentives linked to results, and on trainers and other related costs. Under the incentives system, an athlete winning an Olympic gold medal will receive an amount equivalent to 240 minimum monthly salaries, or COP154m (56,672), with lower amounts for silver and bronze winners.

The other COP17.9bn ($6.6m) of the total spend will go through the Colombian Olympic Committee, to help raise standards and support the participation of Colombian athletes in international competitions prior to the Olympic games in Rio. Botero of Coldeportes, said the department is seeking to achieve Colombia’s “mega-objective”. The goal is for Colombian athletes to win a total of 3000 medals in all international competitions in the 2010-18 period.

For 2016 Coldeportes has announced it has a budget of COP18.5bn ($6.8m). This includes a budget of COP4.7bn ($1.7m) for international events hosted in Colombia, a total of 16 during the year, including the 2016 Squash Colombia Open, to be held in Cartagena in February, and the 21st World BMX Championship due in Medellín in May 2016. The squash open is sponsored by the Taeq nutritional foods brand, part of Colombia’s Grupo Éxito retail chain. Squash is an important sport in Colombia, with one local player, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, ranked fifth in the world. For the BMX championship, contestants are expected to attend from 40 different countries.

Futsal World Cup

The FIFA Futsal World Cup will be held in Colombia between September 10 and October 1, 2016. Futsal is football played on a hard surface, usually indoors. The sport has a strong international and local following – previous World Cups have been won by Brazil and Spain. A total of 24 national teams will compete. The original plan was to host the Futsal World Cup in four Colombian cities. However, after a FIFA inspection visit in January 2016, it was decided that the facilities in Ibague would not meet required standards, so the competition will be hosted only in the three cities of Bucaramanga, Medellín and Cali.

Sports & Peace

The government believes sport can play a particularly important unifying role in the hoped for post-conflict era. A report by a charity group, the Fundación Grupo Internacional de la Paz, commissioned by Coldeportes, says that “socially focused” sports programmes can help strengthen non-violent conflict resolution and respect for human rights, particularly among children and adolescents aged between seven and 17. It estimates that up to 12% of the total population have been “direct victims” of the conflict, with intense impact on the younger generation of Colombians.

One of the programmes supported by Coldeportes is known as “Healthy Habits and Lifestyles” (Hábitos y Estilos de Vida Saludables, HEVS). Óscar Lozano, one of its project leaders explained, “In cities or municipalities where there are problems of intolerance and conflict between residents, we bring people together to take part in sporting events so as to break down those invisible frontiers.”

Outlook

The outlook for Colombian sport in 2016 – in terms of the performance of its stars and top teams, in business terms, and in social terms – is very positive. For many, Colombia’s performance in the 2016 Rio Olympics will be an important measure for how much progress the country has made, while also a signal of its potential. Explaining why Bancolombia decided to become one of the sponsors of the Colombian national football team, bank president Carlos Raúl Yepes went beyond purely commercial motivations, saying, “Football offers one of the main opportunities for social transformation in Colombia. So through this link with football our bank can support children and young people in the country”.

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The Report: Colombia 2016

Sports chapter from The Report: Colombia 2016

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