CARACAS – Manuel Diaz dreams of representing Venezuela in the Olympics but thinks he needs to improve his times and get more international experience. So he is among dozens of swimmers competing in a multi-sport event being put on by Venezuela this month that is part athletics and part geopolitics.
The 16-year-old Diaz will swim the 200-meter individual medley and 200-meter butterfly for the experience more than to earn any medal at the fifth edition of the Alba Games, whose participants represent Latin American and Caribbean nations in the left-leaning Alba alliance and this year's guest country, Russia.
“For us, it’s more like political games. They are more, hmm, among countries, hmm, you understand me?” Diaz said Saturday, standing by a pool and hesitantly moving his hands back and forth. “For me, it is an opportunity to swim in the best pool in the country and lower my times.”
Hundreds of people from 11 countries are participating in 33 events, among them boxing, gymnastics, bodybuilding, swimming, chess and dominoes. None of their victories will get them a step closer to the 2024 Olympics, though, because they are purely exhibition competitions.
And like it or not, the entrants are participating in a geopolitical game.
They come from Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia. The last four are allies and have authoritarian governments.
The competition had not taken place since 2011. Even as the games restart, this year's host, Venezuela, continues to struggle with a complex economic, social and political crisis that has pushed millions to migrate and forced those who have not left, including teachers and utility workers, to live off of a $5 monthly minimum wage.
This is the third time that Venezuela has been host and the first under the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who is working to regain the international recognition he lost when his 2018 re-election was deemed a sham by dozens of countries.
Simon Chadwick, sports and geopolitical economy professor at the Skema Business School in France, said sports have quickly “become an instrument of policy or strategy” that governments deploy “as a response to the geographic, political and economic challenges” they face.
“Sport may be used in attempts to generate a positive economic impact, it might be used to project soft power, or it can be used to put a country’s natural resource assets to productive use," he said. "However, unfortunately, there are still elements of whimsy, conspicuous consumption, corruption and bellicose posturing behind some event hosting decisions.”
Unlike at official international tournaments since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russian athletes are being allowed to use their country’s name, flag and anthem. They will participate in boxing, beach volleyball, weightlifting, gymnastics, table tennis and karate competitions.
More than 30 people walked behind the Russian flag during the opening ceremony Friday at a Caribbean-facing baseball stadium and received a standing ovation at the request of the emcee, who described the group as a “delegation of resistance to the world.” Their supporters sat behind home plate and waved flags.
Virtually everyone in the stands during the ceremony was Venezuelan. A significant number were supporters of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela and public employees still in uniform. Military cadets who had swapped uniforms for jeans and white T-shirts arrived in a truck.
Also attendering were area residents who wanted to meet attendance quotas to keep receiving government benefits like subsidized food. Just as at pro-government demonstrations, neighborhood leaders passed around sheets of paper or notebooks for people to enter their names and other personal information. Some leaders handed out meal containers holding spaghetti and others distributed hotdogs delivered in big trash bags.
“A friend invited me, and I came without knowing anything,” Carolina Barcelo, 19, said.
On Saturday, the stands around the outdoor pool in Caracas were practically empty when swimming competitions began. Organizers paused the event after a race and began inspecting cables by the pool. A trainer said there was a problem with a speaker on a starting block, but a swimmer attributed the pause to touchpads not working.
While that was sorted out, Jose Gonzalez and other swimmers sat under a tent by the pool. Gonzalez, 24, was first selected to Nicaragua’s swimming team in 2017 and planned to participate in at least four races in the Alba Games, including 50-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle.
He said he sees the games only as an opportunity to assess if he has improved over time and does not consider the politics.
“For me, sports and politics are two very different things,” Gonzalez said. “I believe that they are opportunities that should be taken advantage of and not related to or clouded by conflicts.”
This story has been edited to show that supporters of Russian athletes sat behind home plate.