As the 2014 World Junior Ultimate Championships started a few days ago in Lecco, Italy, 25 national teams were supposed to take the pitch in the Open and Women’s divisions. However, the tournament was forced to start one team down, as the Venezuelan Open Squad had to drop out of competition a few days prior to the opening ceremony. As the reasons behind the sudden change of plans were never made public, there was a lot of speculation surrounding the circumstances.
The reason behind this turn of events is simple: politics. Venezuela’s government has frozen the normal exchange of currency and demands a whole lot of bureaucratic paperwork before anyone can be awarded the right to exchange the national currency, the “Bolivar” to any other. Players that need to buy travel tickets and pay team and player fees in dollars have to go through an intense process in order to be awarded the right to exchange their money and use it in a foreign country.
Last year, the U23 squads had a similar situation when they started the process to travel to Canada for the U23 World Championships in Toronto. They had been working for months and planned on taking two youth squads with the most talented players the nation has to offer, but were let down when their currency exchange process was denied, even when they had all the money necessary in Venezuelan currency, and even when their sport was in representation of their own country. The body of government who decides on exchange matters simply stated that ultimate was not an acknowledged sports discipline. Finally, after numerous complaints from the organization, they were awarded the right to exchange bolivares to dollars – albeit only 25% of their initial budget. With such little funds, they had to cut down their numbers and travel as one mixed team. Even so, they had an incredible run in the tournament, upset Japan early on, and proved to the world the incredible talent and worth of Venezuelan ultimate. They finished 4th overall with a 17-strong squad that played with their hearts and souls.
After this incredible participation on the international stage of Ultimate, Venezuelan players and coaches thought they could come even close to a medal and started working exclusively on developing a U19 Open squad with 26 of the best athletes the land of oil and beauty queens has to offer. They began in November of 2013, by holding tryouts for 50 of the very best. Some of them had to be cut simply because they had no possibilities of obtaining the travel documents they need (Passports), and some of them were exceptional players that had no assistance from their own country to obtain in a great amount of time what other countries can give in a small amount of time.
The work kept coming and the coaches and organizers had already started their fight against the system by establishing communication with the Ministry of Sports, who had to approve their currency proposal for the competition. They thought it would be simpler because of the U23 participation and because the project had social characteristics aligned with the present state’s political mindset. They could not be more wrong. After presenting folders filled with information and legal documentation months prior to competition, they were let down with a refusal of approval. They contested the decision and opened communications with the governing body, who continued to appeal while they kept working with the squad, training and competing in national preparation tournaments on both beach and grass surfaces. The juniors worked hard on the field and played against, lost and won against the best elite teams in the nation, which is no simple task, taking into account that in back to back Panamerican championships the elite team Warao has reached the finals and lost against the second best team in the World (Seattle Sockeye). Meanwhile, their coaches worked fought the bureaucracy that is the Venezuelan government, met with the Vice-Minister of Sports, explained the nature of the sport, the governing rules of Spirit of the Game and why it was important for kids to learn how to resolve their problems and differences in a polite and spirited manner, inside and outside of the field. The Vice-Minister agreed to help, and the organizers even signed a sponsorship deal with Gatorade so they could get the funds to travel and play. All they needed was a signed document that could allow them to exchange the Venezuelan funds into European Euros so they could pay for travel and playing fees.
They were denied again. The trip was cancelled. The kids had to bite down on that tough pill and go home. The reason for denial was that only sports disciplines approved by the state were allowed the right to exchange. Their work and deals were rendered useless when their government decided that Ultimate Frisbee was not worth the effort, that our sport was no real sport, and that all that work those kids put into their dream of taking a medal home for their country was no work at all. Sad is the reality that Venezuelans have to live with when they cannot chase their dreams of catching plastic in end zones around the world and earning the right to be called one of the best nations in the sport of ultimate.
Nevertheless, Team Manager Juan Julian Peña and Head Coach Jose Angel Rodriguez shared their plans for the future, and the plans were to keep fighting for the nations youth and their involvement in future world events, to keep training the kids and to keep filing extensive paperwork until their sport projects are approved and their players take a medal home for their country, Venezuela.