Chavez casts divisive shadow over Venezuelan sport at Games

Sun Aug 21, 2016 11:13am EDT
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By Alexandra Ulmer

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When Venezuelan fencer and former sports minister Alejandra Benitez was eliminated in her second-round bout at the Rio Games, she wore a uniform emblazoned with the eyes of the country's divisive late leader, Hugo Chavez.

Back home, it was too much for TV viewers who blame Chavez and his followers for a collapsed economy, and they went online to say the revolutionary's eyes had brought her bad luck.

Benitez, 36, promptly hit back in a video, this time donning a t-shirt with a stylized drawing of the leftist politician's eyes over the Olympic rings: "Look at the beautiful eyes of my 'Comandante', so that it hurts you even more," she said.

The acrimonious politics of Venezuela had arrived in Rio.

Once booming from oil with a growing middle class, the country is in crisis: food is so scarce that mobs riot outside supermarkets and looters raid delivery trucks daily. Medicines are also in short supply.

For a nation in dire economic straits, the Olympics could have offered a distraction from politics. Instead, they have mostly shown just how heavily politicized Venezuelan sport has become.

Benitez, who served as sports minister shortly after Chavez died of cancer in 2013, is among a group of pro-government athletes who have benefited from state support and who back Chavez's self-declared "son" and successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, in turn, has used the Olympics to score political points in marathon television appearances.   Continued...

2016 Rio Olympics - Fencing - Women's Training - Riocentro - Rio De Janeiro, Brazil - 31/07/2016. Venezuela's Alejandra Benitez adjusts her mask in practices.  REUTERS/Edgard Garrido