RIO DE JANEIRO – The Venezuela men's basketball team was officially eliminated from the Olympics on Sunday night, and it doesn't matter. Simply making it to Rio represents progress that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The team got here by winning the FIBA Americas tournament last September, defeating a Canadian team that had beaten them by 20 points a week earlier, and later beating Argentina. The Venezuelans did it while missing three starters, playing without any NBA players. It entered the Olympic basketball field for the first time in 24 years.
That's only part of the story, though. There are upstart countries in every Olympic basketball field for whom participation signifies progress. The Venezuelans brought a slightly different narrative to the Olympics because of the full-on crisis they left behind.
Prior to coming to Rio I'd known that Venezuela's been mired in political turmoil since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, but not until talking to people at the Olympics did I realize how bad it's gotten. The drop in oil prices, coupled with an ineffective and oppressive socialist government, has left the country increasingly helpless. Infrastructure is crumbling. While the rest the world has wondered whether Rio can host, Venezuela is struggling to eat.
As The New York Times reported in June: "The economic collapse of recent years has left [Venezuela] unable to produce enough food on its own or import what it needs from abroad. Cities have been militarized under an emergency decree from President Nicolás Maduro, the man Mr. Chávez picked to carry on with his revolution before he died three years ago. ... In April, [a survey] found that a family would need the equivalent of 16 minimum-wage salaries to properly feed itself." This is the context that's surrounded the basketball team in Rio.
"The basketball gives you an outlet," guard John Cox said Friday night. "Sports gives you that inspiration, things to look forward to. What's happening with Venezuela basketball is really good. I mean, winning FIBA Americas, qualifying for the Olympics for the first time in 24 years. I think it just gives the people some joy."
Cox was born in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, but he lives in Philadelphia now. His family is in the States, too. He's actually a cousin of Kobe Bryant. We connected initially because he spoke perfect English. "I do play in the league there," he continued. "You see what's going on. It's a tough time."
"It's hard," said guard Heissler Guillent in Spanish. "Knowing that things aren't going well there, knowing that my family is having a hard time. But we have to be professional and focus on the job at hand."
Missing its lone NBA player Greivis Vasquez, the Venezuelan team finished 1-4 in this tournament, with blowout losses to Australia, France and the United States. "We're running into some top tier teams," Cox said with a resigned smile on Friday. The team had just suffered a 40-point loss to France.
There have been bright spots, though. The Venezuelans beat China. And amazingly, they were tied with the Americans after the first quarter. "It was tough," Cox said of the U.S. game. "I was happy with our effort, though. We fought really well. And I think with being with Team USA is good for Venezuelan basketball and the young generation coming up. Guys competed hard. We didn't get the result, but it felt good."
"You can see it just from social media and the internet," Cox said. "The fans, really. Basketball is huge in Venezuela. They love what we're doing."
One of the stars in that U.S. game, at least early on, was Greg Echenique. He went toe-to-toe with DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green and held his own. Watching from the media section, he reminded me of every undersized college big man I've ever loved. And sure enough, Echenique played in the U.S., first at Rutgers and eventually at Creighton.
"It was fun," Echenique said of the U.S. game. "In that game, everybody's watching. It's definitely fun to compete with them. To guard some of the guys that you watch, that play your same position. Superstars, making millions and all this. It's just fun to be on the same court with all them."
I asked him what it felt like play basketball during the middle of everything that's happening back home. "It's a tough tournament," he said. "It's our first time here. We've tried to come out and fight with dignity. A lot of people are watching."
Echenique played overseas in Belgium and Germany after college, but now he's playing professionally in Venezuela, where his family lives as well. He was asked whether the hunger and riots are as bad near his home as they are in the heart of Caracas. "It's a sensitive subject," he said. "But the situation is everywhere."
Basketball—and their spot on the national team—insulates players from the worst of the crisis, but it's impossible to miss what's going on.
"Maybe my reality is a little different than some," Echenique cautions. "Most don't have a well-paying job. So [my family can] kind of manage to get by. But a lot of people can't do that."
Venezuela's coach is Nestor "Che" Garcia, and he wasn't available after the France game. It was past midnight by the time the game ended. And it was while looking for Garcia that me and my colleague Chris Hunt—who's fluent in Spanish—found another source. "It's extremely unlikely that the coach would speak to you about this," said a Venezuelan fan outside the arena.
He spoke in Spanish and asked not to be not be named, but he told us there are two reasons for this. First, the coach is Argentinean, so he would remain impartial out of respect. Second, the coach is paid by the state basketball federation, which is controlled by the government. He wouldn't want to jeopardize the program.
We never found the coach, but the Venezuelan fan had more to say about the Olympics. "For the people it's very important," he said in Spanish. "They're ranked 24th in the world by FIBA. They were the champion of the last FIBAs Americas tournament. For them it's an improbable situation to even be here. We knew coming here that we were going to lose in this tournament, but it's tremendous progress."
And then, life back home. "It's very difficult," he said. "There's very little food. If you blow out a tire, it's extremely difficult to get it fixed. If your battery in your car dies, you will spend all day in line just to get a new battery. When I go to other countries, I fill my suitcase with medicine to bring it home for my mother and grandmother."
He told us that all of the players have to be careful of what they say, because the government funds the national team, and because most of their families live in Venezuela. He told us that there was a recent push for a referendum to oust the president who's been in charge since Chavez, but the government has delayed that until January. By that time, he said, the current government will have a replacement in place to prolong the current regime's reign. "Nothing will change," he said in Spanish. "They'll just take off the head and re-install the vice president they appoint."
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The Olympic season is filled with heartwarming stories of athletes who inspire the world and help bring people together. Some of this effect is very real, but other times it feels over-the-top. The Opening Ceremony came with extended interludes on global warming and peace on earth. In any case, I didn't approach the Venezuelans with any illusions about what they could do in this tournament, or what they could change in their country. Sports can't fix commodity prices or overthrow governments.
What sports can always do, though, is humanize problems for the rest of us. At the Olympics, or in the NFL, or in college, sports take people from vastly different backgrounds and puts them in a context that we can all understand. They make strangers seem familiar, and suddenly it's harder to ignore their reality. The situation in Venezuela is easy to miss when it's buried in The New York Times, but seeing Venezuelan athletes next to NBA players, and hearing Venezuelans discuss their experiences, adds a degree of intimacy. That's the value of the Olympic platform.
"There's a lot of stuff going on down there," Echenique said. "For this hour-and-a-half or two hours that we play, I think people forget a little bit about their problems and support us. It's been really great to be part of that."
The problems are profound and difficult to solve. Basketball can only do so much. But for the past year this team helped Venezuelans forget, at least for a moment, what's happening there. If any of this can the help the rest of world remember, it's a start.