The Summer of Spain (and the bad news)

Friday, 9 July 2010

As part of a series of pieces about life in Europe beyond cycling, here’s another addition. For more in the series, click on the Out of Competition tag below.

Spain’s having a great summer sports-wise. Nadal’s just won the Wimbledon tennis tournament, the soccer team’s in the World Cup final and maybe Alberto Contador’s going to make it a triple.

I’m wondering if this is going to continue. To be a champion requires hard work, dedication, training but the first ingredient is genetic. All pros are physiological outliers, they are born with big lungs and other genetic gifts that make them exceptional athletes. Yet Spain has no monopoly on physiological talent, having a Spanish birth certificate does not correlate with a superior cardio system.

But the Kingdom sadly does have one difference: a massive pool of men to draw on. As I write, the unemployment rate in Spain is 19.9%, double the already high rate across Europe. If one in five being out of work isn’t bad enough, the figure for youth unemployment, under-25s, in Spain is 40%. This is not something to be flippant about or make light of. Many of us have been out of work and looking for work can be a full time job in itself, only without the salary and social status.

But it does create a vast pool of relatively idle people for whom sporting success is with a a potential a way out, or just a way to pass the time. So I wonder how many young Spaniards will be racing when their peers in Belgium or Britain will be racing. The larger the group of riders, the bigger the chances of a genetic superstar rising through the ranks, rather than becoming spreadsheet hero or factory worker.

Broadly I suspect the correlation between unemployment rates and talent is actually quite small. After all many European countries have mass unemployment already and yet they are slowly losing out to arrivals from Australia, Britain, Scandinavia and Australia, countries were unemployment has traditionally been lower.

Indeed I suspect two factors: first that cycling is expensive, if you are out of work then cycling might not always be your first choice sport, even if a good club can cover some costs. Second, more significantly the size of the talent pool isn’t the significant factor – I’m wondering aloud, if you haven’t guessed – but that detecting and nurturing the potential world class riders is what it is all about. This requires wealth and often government spending, something countries with hard-pressed public finances might find harder.

If anyone has any membership data for the Spanish Cycling Federation (RFEC), please get in touch via the comments or email.

This is part of a series on European life called “out of competition” where I try to show a few things that go beyond bike racing. For more items see the following:

Out of Competition
Part I: another other side to Belgium
Part II: Is Belgium splitting apart?
Part III: The Bike as a Way Out
Part IV: The Walloon Cockerel
Part V: Belgian Government Collapses
Part VI: Young, Gifted and Credit Blacklisted
Part VII: Belgian elections
Part VIII: The summer of Spain
Part IX: Preparing for the break-up of Belgium
Part X: Those flags you see in Italian races

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{ 1 comment }

TheInnerRing July 9, 2010 at 8:32 am

A pre-emptive comment: this isn't to single out Spain. Many Spaniards are rightly proud of their country and I'm not seeking to take cheap shots at Spain or make light of the massive economic and social challenges. I'm just trying to explore the wider factors behind participation and whether a wider pool of potential cyclists brings a greater chance of identifying and nurturing that talent.

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