London 2012 Olympics: Jose Gamarra Zorrilla, Bolivia’s Baron Pierre De Coubertin

Bolivia & Great Britain

On July 27, 2012, all eyes of the world will be on London, host the Olympic Summer Games. Since then, the Parade of Nations has become one of the most beautiful events: 205 nations and dependencies with their Goodwill Ambassadors and sporting heroes -from the tiny island of Guam (where America’s days begins!), Africa’s South Sudan (globe’s newest country), and the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan to the United States of America and Bolivia, a country in the heart of the South American continent.

When Bolivia’s Olympic team, one of Earth’s smallest delegations, begins to march into the London Olympic Stadium, with its top athlete (probably will be Claudia Balderrama, a female race walker) carrying the national flag — the traditional red, yellow and green tricolor, I will remember two things: By the second half of the 1860s, Queen Victoria, among the most powerful women in history, abolished Bolivia from her world map after England’s ambassador to La Paz, the country’s capital, had been humiliated by Bolivia’s notorious dictator Mariano Melgarejo. Secondly, the South American country has not produced many of the globe’s foremost Olympian athletes, but it had one of the best Olympic leaders in the whole history of sport. His name: Jose Gamarra Zorrilla, who was lionized by several foreign governments, from Taiwan and America to the Soviet Union and Mexico.

Bolivia— Birthplace of Jose Gamarra Zorrilla

This landlocked republic of 10 million people, an independent country since the 1820s, is home to the Lake Titicaca— one of the natural wonders on the Planet- the ruins of Tiawanacu — remnants of a past civilization and called the «Athens of South America» — and also birthplace of prominent personalities: Grammy Award-winning artist Jaime Laredo (among the few Latinos to win the American award), who popped up in the 60s and 70s as one of the most respected violinists in the Western Hemisphere. Jaime Escalante Gutierrez, who was immortalized in the film «Stand and Deliver» and was awarded the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Other noted personality was Bolivia’s literary magician Alcides Arguedas, among the most gifted authors writing in the Spanish language. To many Bolivians, America’s actress Raquel Welch Tejada, whose eternal beauty has become a «top secret», is a «Bolivian». Why? Welch’s father was Bolivian (Armando Carlos Tejada Urquizo, an Americanophile).

On the other hand, the nation’s capital, La Paz, is the world’s highest capital. This wonderful land, more than twice the area of California-The Golden State, is famed for its mountains of great beauty (where you can ski like at Insbruck, Austria!) and wild-life national parks, as well as its traditional dance and music. But at the same time, unfortunately, its history is known for its notorious dictators as Melgarejo… and its status as one of the two poorest and least developed places on the American mainland since the late 1890s—life expectancy is among the lowest in the developing world.

With this political backdrop, the country’s sport hadn’t a chance to develop an Olympian system until 1970. Yet despite all that, in the 1940s, this sparsely-populated land produced an outstanding all-around athlete called Julia Iriarte, —«Latin America’s Fanny Blankers-Koen» and considered to be the greatest Bolivian athlete of all time— who captured the attention of many Latinos when she picked up a total of eight medals in the multi-sport Bolivarian Games -a kind of South American Olympics-in the Peruvian capital of Lima in 1947: five gold ( 80m hurdles, shot put, discus throw, high jump, long jump) and three silver (50mts, 400m relay, and javelin throw). Despite a lack of professional training, this «super-woman» had the distinction of being one of the first women to win eight medals in a single international event.

A Sporting Revolution in Bolivia

By the early 1970s, Jose Gamarra Zorrilla was appointed chairman of the Bolivian Olympic Committee (COB), in a landlocked republic with a monumental indifference to sports. From then on, he, with a spirit of self sacrifice, worked whole his life to improve the sport in his motherland.

This rich-mineral country appeared to emerge from its worst Olympic history when Mr. Gamarra persuaded Bolivia’s head of state Hugo Banzer Suarez, who ruled between 1971 and 1978, to stimulate sport and to transform the republic into an «Olympian nation». Happily, he not failed to sell the idea to Banzer. At that time, the President appointed to his cabinet people from politics, diplomacy, and business rather than the military. On October 3, 1973, a government decree was promulgated, giving sport official status and guaranteed federal backing. In fact, Gamarra was inspired by France’s Baron de Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Games and whose ideas revolutionized the world toward the end of the 19th Century.

Against all odds, Gamarra, an economist-turned-sports leader, had tried to maintain the government’s interest in the cause of sport. However, it was a difficult mission: sport was not a top priority for Latin America’s military rulers with the exception of Argentina’s 1976-1982 military dictatorship. When the Uruguayan warlords came to power in the 70s and 80s, the country’s performance had declined in soccer global after capturing two FIFA World Cup tournaments -with a kind of sporting immortality following a victory over the host Brazilians in the finals in 1950— and two Olympic championships in the first half of the Twentieth Century, while Augusto Pinochet’s Chile sent symbolic delegations to the Games, and Mr. Alfredo Stroessner’s government was not able to host the 1982 Women’s Basketball World Cup in Paraguay, in the wake of being named as host in the late 1970s.

Immediately after assuming the presidency of the National Olympic Committee, Gamarra made quick steps to set up a new sporting system, sending athletic delegations to the Summer Olympics (Munich’72 and Canada’76) and Pan American Games (Mexico City’75). Nonetheless, one of his major projects was intensified government efforts to promote physical education and sports in public schools, changing attitude toward sport and paving the way to the nation’s Olympian future. Then, he helped La Paz to hold the 1977 Bolivarian Games, staging the greatest event in Bolivarian history. This Spanish-speaking republic had made some attempts to host the Games — a multi-sport event for competitors from six countries since 1938— in the mid-1950s and 1970.

Women’s Rights

Sport and women’s rights cannot be separated. For this reason, Mr. Gamarra encouraged the treatment of women as men’s equals: On the one hand, he sent several female athletes to the international competitions, creating more opportunities for women’s sports in the 1970s, the «United Nations Decade of Women». With a focus on the Olympics of 1980, for example, swimmer Maria Eguia competed at the 1979 Soviet Spartakiad, becoming the first sportswoman from Bolivia to participate in a major international event. While on the other hand, Gamarra named Julia Iriarte as the person to carry the Olympic flame into the Stadium at the Opening Ceremony of the 1977 Bolivarian Games. In this regional contest, Bolivia’s sportswomen won 15 medals in aquatics, athletics, basketball, bowling, fencing, tennis, and indoor volleyball.

In many ways, he was also an extraordinary diplomat during Cold War. In the seventies, for example, this mineral-rich republic was invaded by foreign coaches at the request of Gamarra, seeking stronger preparation to the national athletes. Curiously, the country was like a virtual «Torre of Babel»: a host of coaches, advisers, and experts from America, USSR (what is now Russia), Ecuador, West Germany, Chile, Japan, Chinese Taipei, the People’s Republic of China, and Venezuela-living and working in peace and harmony. People who left lives of confort to set up an Olympian project in one of the globe’s poorest lands. Certainly, Bolivia had become the «darling of the Olympic Community».

A Tower of Babel: Americans, Soviets, and other Foreigners

Prior to the latter half of the 1970s, the future looked uncertain: From 1951 until 1973, the Latin American republic alone won five Bolivarian golds and did not compete in three Summer Olympics. During those troubled decades, had little to write about Bolivia and its champions. Although, the nation’s sportsmen and women were ill-prepared to compete against Peruvians, Colombians and Mexicans, the National Olympic Committee (NOC) participate for the first time in the Olympic-type Pan American Games at Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) in 1967. In the regional tournaments, on the other hand, its competitors were absent for several decades or they finished in the last place —with the lowest time ever recorded in the South American competitions, from track and field to gymnastics and weightlifting. Nonetheless, in 1977 the country had a reason for celebration for the first time.

At the Bolivarian Games on home soil in October 1977, the host country made history after winning 71 medals (15 gold, 17 silver, and 39 bronze) and with outstanding athletes as Edgar Cueto (cycling), Betty Saavedra (women’s basketball), Walter Quiroga (shooting), and Antonieta Arizaga, regarded the greatest Bolivian ever to compete in women’s swimming. Astonishingly, there were wins in non-traditional sports for Bolivians: The delegation added golds in martial art (Jaen Young Kim Song) and boxing with the giant Walter Quisbert—defeating candidates of Venezuela, a powerhouse in judo and boxing. But this achievement was not simply a «miracle». For these Games, Banzer’s regime built one of Latin America’s best Olympian stadiums, while most of the nation’s athletes and coaches went abroad, with the goal of winning international experience. Since then, Mr. Gamarra, chairman of the Organizing Committee for the 1977 Games, was a key figure behind Bolivia’s performance.

Thanks to his innovative style and excellent diplomacy,Mr Gamarra, an American-trained economist, persuaded the anti-Communist Banzer -who reinvented himself as a democratic candidate in the 1980s and was elected president in 1997— to «establish sporting ties» with some Socialist nations. Results: The Soviet World sent six coaches to La Paz. That was one of the several memorable moments this sports leader had given her impoverished country. Gamarra absolutely did not know the word «fail». Some years ago, Banzer severed diplomatic and consular relations with the USSR and expelled 119 Soviet diplomats. During Cold War, the Kremlin had difficult ties with the Latin American continent (with the exception of Cuba’s Fidel Castro).

Although the Andean regime had had a rocky unstable relationship with Chile in the 1970s, a Chilean coach went to the Bolivian capital to work with the equestrian national team. Meanwhile, the women’s volleyball squad left La Paz for Santiago to play Chilean squads.

Since then, Gamarra found a good friend in the States. In the period 1966-1967, he served as a Bolivian consul in the U.S. During his sports administration, Washington had agreed to give Bolivia seven experts and one of them was Mr. Arthur Duran, who coached some of basketball’s top players in the mountainous country. To help the Andean nation to build its sporting system, Donald Howorth spent two years working with girls and boys. By mid-1978, the U.S. women’s junior basketball team made a short tour of La Paz to play the Bolivian national side.

But Gamarra also put his eyes on the island of Taiwan, a country hungry for international recognition after being ousted from the United Nations (1971) — At the time, the tiny Asian nation of Taiwan was an Olympian nation with some notable stars in international sports since the 1960s (among them Chi Cheng and UCLA-educated C.K.Yang). Within a few months, two Taiwanese coaches made a trip to the Andean capital to help train the swimmers and volleyball players of Bolivia.

Historically, the South American republic had never won a swimming medal in the international events during more than half a century, but the underdog Antonieta Arizaga became the first Bolivian (male or female) to accomplish that feat when she won the gold medal at the 1977 Bolivarian Games. Swimmer Arizaga was in a state of shock after hearing her name as the winner in the women’s 100m breaststroke. Then, her victory set off a wave of explosive celebration in the Bolivian delegation and her officials. The breaststroke specialist added silver in the 4x100m medley relay, which was not to be sniffed at (along with her fellow sportswomen Maria Eguia, Ruth Lino and Alejandra Garcia). But there were other athletic feats thanks to Chinese Taipei, a leaf-shaped island on the China Sea. At that time, the Andean government was one of only three South American states -Paraguay and Uruguay were the others— to maintain close ties to Taiwan rather than China.

Proud Years: 1978 & 1979

As early as 1978, Gamarra’s profile on the world stage was raised when he became the father of the First South American Games on Bolivian soil despite a military coup against Banzer and other troubles. Meanwhile, more than 100 medals were won by the host Bolivians, finishing in third in the medals totals by country.

One of the greatest moments in the history of Bolivian sport occurred in these Games. The basketball women’s squad came into their home nation’s South American Games as one of the most inexperienced teams in the continent, however, they made history when the national side won the silver medal following an emotional win over Argentina (74-56), capturing a ticket for South America at next year’s FIBA Championship in the Republic of Korea and Pan American Games in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Before that win, the country had not captured a medal in any South American Tournament but soccer (1963).

The national basketball hero Betty Saavedra and her teammates celebrated like high school kids, after their victory over Argentina’s sportswomen. Aside from winning a silver medal, the delegation became the first Bolivian team to win a berth in the World Championships. That was why the victory was so special for them. In the final ceremony, the captain Saavedra received the trophy from Mr.Gamarra Zorrilla, a lifelong sports fan. Averaging 18 point a game, the smaller Saavedra (1,61m tall) had helped the national side win the VIII Bolivarian Games a year ago after being elected as one of the most prominent basketball players in the regional championship in the Peruvian capital of Lima.

After becoming the first Bolivian squad in history to winning an international spot, the women’s team won two matches on South Korean soil— against Malaysia and Senegal (African champs). Before that, they were into the «Group of Death» with Canada, Netherlands and the host country and were eliminated in the first phase.

To prepare for the VIII Pan American Games on Puerto Rico, Miss Guadalupe Yañez and her fellow sportswomen were on a tour of Taiwan in May, where also participating in the famous William Jones Tournament-all paid for by the Taiwanese regime. In a basketball world filled with giant players, the smaller Guadalupe Yañez (1,60m tall) became one of the four best players in the Puerto Rican event, alongside some of the most famous female stars as Carol Turney of Canada and Hortencia Marcari from Brazil. Her performance served as an inspiration for her countrywoman Maria Ortuno, the most outstanding athlete in the 1980 Junior South American Championship in the neighboring Peru.

On the other hand, one of Gamarra’s last projects occurred in this year and in February 1980. Against all odds, he and Sergei Parlov, Chairman of the Sports Committee of the USSR and President of the NOC of the USSR, sign an sporting agreement in Moscow in behalf of sport in the former Spanish colony; Gamarra was the highest-profile Bolivian official to visit the Soviet Union since the two countries cut diplomatic ties in the early 1970s. Later on, the nation’s athletes were welcomed to Moscow to compete in the Spartakiad, a multi-sport event where more than 10,000 athletes from the republics of the USSR and 50 countries participated (Eastern Bloc states, USA, Western Europe, Japan, and many nations in the developing world); it was the largest multi-sport event on Earth in the 1970s.

While the United States of America secured its place in sports history when its hockey team -made up of highly gifted players— scored a major upset over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid (NY), Mr. Gamarra encouraged three alpine skiers to participate in New York -the country’s first winter Olympic appearance since the mid-1950s, in a time when Brazil had not yet competed in the Winter Games. Billy Farwing Avaroa, Victor H. Ascarrunz, and Scott Sanchez Saunders were the members of the nation’s very small contingent of skiers in the States.

It was while Yañez and her fellow teammates competed in Puerto Rico after a tour of Far East, Mexico, and the States, that the country was on the brink of chaos. Between July 21, 1978 and November 1, 1979, there were five rulers ( and many attempted coups), among them Victor Gonzales Fuentes, Juan Pereda, David Padilla, Walter Guevara, and Alberto Natusch. Then, Lidia Gueiler Tejada -Raquel Welch’s relative— became President of the Provisional Council and Head of State, against a backdrop of violence. Two days prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXII Olympiad, on July 17, 1980, the left-wing Gueiler government ended with a coup by General Luis Garcia Meza. In the meantime, thousands of people -including much-needed professionals— fled to neighboring countries -including Peru, Chile, Argentina—Western Europe and North America.

The Face of Bolivian Sport

With some international medals and training in the altitude of La Paz, runner Johnny Perez became one of Bolivia’s top athletes in the late 1970s. Thus, he had been seen as the first Bolivian with a real chance to go Moscow’80. By 1978, he revealed emotion upon hearing the Bolivian national anthem after capturing his third gold medal at the First South American Games. Perez was hoping to become an Olympian runner one day after missing the Montreal Summer Games in the mid-1970s. His dream was to compete with stars as Sebastian Coe of the UK, John Walker of New Zealand or perhaps with the world record holder Filbert Bayi of the African republic of Tanzania. Perez’s last opportunity to realize this dream came in 1980. However, he could not compete in the Games. All his work had gone down the drain. Thirty-two years later, Perez is still one of the nation’s most-loved sports heroes, especially in his hometown city of Sucre.

Despite his success in the national sport (for the first time international medals in equestrian, judo, swimming; agreements with West Germany, Mexico and other important countries on the world stage; a physical culture in the public schools), Gamarra had not a good year in 1980 when a new rule came to power.

Seeking to denigrate his Olympian career, the new left-wing government boycotted his administration, destroying one of the most ambicious sporting projects in the Spanish-speaking world. In complete violation of the Olympic Charter, the Andean ruler refused to recognise Gamarra Zorrilla as chairman of Bolivian Olympic Committee (COB). In fact, his sporting career came to a sudden end.

Latin America’s Greatest Olympic Leader

After Moscow’s officials made a visit to La Paz to lobby for Bolivia’s participation in the 1980 Summer Games, the National Olympic Committee had planned to send athletes. Nonetheless, the Andean government declined to compete at the 1980 Games, ending months of speculation and reversing most of Gamarra’s sporting policies. Since then, it was a revenge because Mr. Gamarra was a sports leader during Hugo Banzer’s anti-Communist dictatorship. From then on, things were getting worse for the nation’s sport.

During their Bolivian trip, the Soviet authorities offered to subsidize the sending of a national contingent (athletes, coaches, and officials). That offer was also extended to many developing countries, including Afghanistan, Costa Rica, Laos, Peru, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Three years later, Bolivia’s left-wing leader Hernan Siles Suazo refused to send an athletic contingent to the IX Pan American Games, ushering a long period of decline.

Certainly, Mr. Jose Gamarra Zorrilla could have been president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but he retired from the Bolivian Olympic Committee in 1982, following a sporting career that spanned more than 10 years, after raising money and lobbing for his project in Russia, Japan, Taipei, America, Switzerland, and in the Burned Palace (Bolivia’s Presidential Palace). Because of his unwavering support of the Olympic Movement, the IOC conferred him the bronze medal in the Olympic Order in 1978. He, who professed great love for the Olympism, once said: «Inspired by the Olympism philosophy, we in Bolivia have succeeded, thanks to the development of sport, in preserving the peoples’ health, encouraging their competitive spirit and forming their character through struggle, a balanced approach and discipline».

Few expected him to stimulate sport in the Andean republic under the military rule of Hugo Banzer Suarez —who came to power through a coup’etat in the early 1970s— and were even more who did not believe that the country would win continental medals and international berths as occurred as the women’s volleyball side qualified for the First Junior World Cup on Brazilian soil in 1977 after training with overseas coaches.

Misunderstood in his own country, Mr. Gamarra, which shared the staged with the world’s most powerful sports leaders, passed away in the early 2000s. In this Olympic year, 2012, a tribute to an extraordinary gentleman which made much for Olympism despite a number of adverse circumstances, evoking the Olympian spirit of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. If Britain had Harold Abrahams, Bolivia had Mr. Gamarra. No Bolivian has brought greater honor to his nation than Mr. Gamarra.

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