Rodeo rift: Elitism in Chile’s national sport
Rancagua, Chile – 02/05/2012 – as published by The Economist, for the Game Theory blog.
THE 50,000 fans who travelled to Chile’s National Rodeo Championship Finals in late March may have been surprised to see that Michelle Recart had qualified. As an amateur and mother in her late 40s, Ms Recart looked the very antithesis of the typical competitor in what is a famously elitist and chauvinistic sport. But apart from being a woman, Ms Recart was little different from her rivals. Like them, she comes from a wealthy family that has been involved in rodeo for generations. Her father is the former president of the Federation of Chilean Rodeo.
Chilean rodeo is a maze of contradictions. It originated in the humble task of herding cattle to market, and yet it is one of the upper classes’ most fiercely guarded traditions. For most Chileans, it is symbolic of their traditional rural lifestyle, the cult of the horse and the skill of the huaso, Chile’s version of the cowboy, but its roots go back to a time when the entire country was controlled by just ten families. Keen to preserve the tradition, Chile’s authorities made rodeo the national sport in a law of 1962. Although it continues to attract a huge following, only the very wealthiest Chileans can afford to participate in rodeo, putting its long-term survival in doubt.
The elitism of rodeo is apparent at all levels. Juan Carlos Loaiza and Eduardo Tamayo, this year’s champions, are backed by Agustín Edwards Eastman, the owner of El Mercurio newspaper and one of the richest men in Chile. Mr Eastman is thought to spend between $40,000 and $60,000 each month on maintaining his Futrono ranch, which includes paying for a vet, grooms and a team of horse-breeding experts. He also pays salaries to Mr Loaiza and Mr Tamayo and stumps up their attendance fees at competitions. Although other sports are similarly awash with money at the very top, few enjoy the status of de jure national sport.
While a long list of rules is designed to safeguard the traditional nature of rodeo, many serve to make involvement in it even harder for the average Chilean. Laws about the purity of the Chilean rodeo breed and the specifications for riders’ dress make participation an expensive business, and most competitions do not award prize money to winners. Because it is not played internationally, rodeo does not qualify for government funding from Chile’s Olympic Committee. Riders who wish to participate in rodeo at any level must fund themselves. That means being able to invest in land, horses and equipment, as well as pay as much as $2,500 to take part in a competition.
The Federation of Chilean Rodeo tried to address this by creating a second rodeo ‟league” 25 years ago. As part of its plan, it provided horses to Chileans in the north who had begun to play rodeo in the Atacama desert despite a complete lack of facilities. Although well intentioned, this move may have worsened matters by ringfencing the top level of the sport for the very rich. The two-tier system also reflects an economic divide: although Chile is the most developed country in South America, it is the most unequal in the OECD, with the wealthiest 10% of the population earning 27 times as much as the poorest 10%.
In the short term, the lack of government funding is not a problem. Generous contributions from the likes of Mr Eastman have allowed rodeo to prosper, while Chileans still flock to events as spectators. But in few other sports deemed integral to a country’s culture is grassroots participation virtually impossible for the majority of the population. Unless future generations of Chileans are happy to keep watching a privileged elite play a game they cannot, rodeo could lose its status as Chile’s national sport, whatever the law might say.