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Javier Milei’s chainsaw cuts deep into Argentine sports

Leaderless clubs, suspended tournaments, tours in danger of cancelation, and frozen budgets put the activities of high-performance athletes at risk

Qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup 2026 between Argentina and Uruguay, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023
Soccer fans walk towards the Bombonera stadium before the start of a match in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 2023.Matias Delacroix (AP)

River and Boca tied on Sunday at the peak of the most passionate weekend in Argentine soccer, the so-called “classics day,” a day that includes local derby matches, such as Independiente vs. Racing, and Newell’s vs. Central. However, behind the crowds and the power cultivated by the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 championship, the grassroots of Argentine sport are reeling from being dismantled by President Javier Milei’s government.

The far-right president’s chainsaw, which affects sectors as diverse as health, science, transportation, and cinema also began to affect athletes’ training, and not only the disciples of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, but also of champions of other disciplines such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Emanuel Ginóbili, Guillermo Vilas, Carlos Monzón, and Gabriela Sabatini.

Between indifference and adjustment, the beginning of the Milei administration in sports is characterized by leaderless clubs, suspended tournaments, and tours in danger of being canceled. Budgets have been frozen in the midst of the highest inflation in the world, scholarships have been pulverized, athletes are holding raffles to cover their expenses, and there are complaints from active and retired athletes. But most telling of all is the silence from the majority, even from leaders, in the face of the imminent Olympic Games. Although the cuts will also affect representatives in Paris 2024, the effects of Milei’s chainsaw will be felt most keenly by non-Olympic athletes.

Being a goalkeeper in the San Lorenzo and Chacarita soccer training divisions were the only interest that Milei showed in sports. His presidency only responds to market issues. In the mega decree he signed in December, he ordered the incorporation of Sports Joint Stock Companies (SAD) into soccer championships. The measure has been stopped at least temporarily by an interim ruling by the Justice Department. The rest is a desert.

While the Sports Secretariat, the state organization that promotes social sports, has remained without a secretary — and the government is reluctant to appoint a manager — the Argentine Olympic Committee (COA) seems to have been left in a position of uncomfortable closeness with Milei. The Committee’s honorary president, Gerardo Werthein, was appointed as the new Argentine ambassador to the United States, although the appointment is still pending approval.

It is true that the presidency of Alberto Fernández from 2019 to 2023 was not a panacea for Argentine sports, either. There was no shortage of controversies — athletes traveled to the Guayaquil 2021 South American Athletics Championship thanks to an influencer who organized a collection for the air fares — or unfavorable outcomes. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games saw the lowest medal haul in 29 years, and the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games marked a drastic reduction in gold medals from 33 to 17. But if the state’s sports policy was already in crisis, particularly since Mauricio Macri eliminated self-financing in 2017, Milei rubbed salt in the wound. Barely 70 days after his inauguration, the difference is already noticeable.

Last Wednesday, the Argentine Athletics Confederation (CADA) issued a statement that some specialists interpret as “the night for national athletics” and a diagnosis that can be extended to other sports. In short, CADA reported that the budget of the National High Performance Entity (Enard, an organization composed of the COA and the now leaderless Sports Secretariat, which distributes scholarships among the best athletes in the country) will be the same as in 2023, “with the considerable decrease that it entails.” Although Argentina was the country with the highest inflation in the world last year, with 211%, plus another 20% registered in the first month of 2024, its sport will have a similar game to that of 2023.

The Enard scholarships for athletes who qualified for Paris 2024 range from 170,000 to 390,000 pesos ($200 to $450 dollars in the official price), while those preparing for the 2027 Pan American Games receive from 156,000 to 218,000 pesos ($185 to $260). Some of these figures are below the poverty line. In Buenos Aires you need 194,000 pesos ($230) to not be considered poor. The financing of high-performance Argentine athletes once again depended on state funds — described by Milei as “the root of all the problems” — since Macri removed a law that endowed Enard with 1% of the revenue from mobile phone tariffs.

“Today the money that athletes receive is very little, and the scholarships are a pittance. They should be updated in proportion to the devaluation of the peso against the dollar because many athletes abroad can cover their expenses,” says Rodolfo Paverini, president of the Argentine Sports Confederation (CAD), the body that brings together federations of different disciplines. Victoria Granatto, field hockey player and silver medalist in Tokyo 2020 made a similar criticism: “The first consequences of sport are visible: the same budget as in 2023 but with devaluation and inflation.”

The new scenario leaves many athletes without anything to do. “In December they told us that, due to lack of funding, we would not be able to compete in any tournaments abroad during the year,” says Iván Nikilajuk, a member of the Argentine archery team. “My colleagues and I held raffles to travel to the South American Championship in Brazil in March, and for the Pan American Championship in Colombia in April, but the collection is not going well and we will not be able to participate. We have just started 2024 and we are already left with nothing,” adds the triple South American champion.

Rower Ariel Suárez, a triple Pan American champion, left behind his initial enthusiasm for Milei’s triumph and became a spokesperson against his inaction in sport. “The only thing that interests them are the SADs and behind that there is a world of athletes that is being cast aside. Sport has been orphaned, it doesn’t have a clear path, and we are in a mess,” complained Suárez. He also said that he is “begging for accommodation” with well-known clubs in Brazil so that the Argentine rowing team can participate in the South American Championship in Rio de Janeiro in March.

In turn, some tournaments that were to be held in Argentina have already been cancelled, such as the fencing World Cup that was scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires in March. “In the current economic situation, and taking into account that neither Enard nor the Sports Secretariat have allocated a budget, we have found it necessary to cancel the tournament. We regret having to cancel this event that we have organized since 1995,” published the local Federation.

A good medal haul in Paris 2024 will depend almost exclusively on the team sports. Argentine pride is based on thousands of neighborhood clubs, which are a formidable breeding ground for soccer players and athletes from other disciplines. But the institutions also have an eye on Milei’s chainsaw. They fear that gas and electricity subsidies will be taken away. The reigning world champions in soccer, and with an unbreakable history and tradition, Argentine sport is entering a stage of abandonment and darkness.

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