Friday, February 10, 2012

Spain versus France: Doping Puppets edition

Just when you thought the cold weather was going to keep the country occupied for a bit, along comes a new distraction. The Spanish are up in arms about a series of videos in which it is implied that Rafael Nadal, the Spanish tennis great and favourite son, owes his success to drug use. (This is all the more hurtful because, although Rafa has never been anything but squeaky-clean, his He-Man physique does rather lend itself to malicious speculation.) The videos are distasteful, and not particularly funny, but then it's a satirical puppet show; what exactly was everyone expecting?

This comes on the heels of Alberto Contador's Tour de France title loss and two-year ban from cycling, and, as the videos make clear, it's not just Rafa who's the target: the punchline is that "Spaniards don't win for no reason". In other words, Contador's infractions are just the tip of the iceberg - any Spanish sporting achievement is suspicious. 

Naturally, the Spanish are extremely cross about this. Rafa himself has been, characteristically, fairly restrained on the subject, but that doesn't stop everyone else from opining, and for once Spain has achieved something approaching a national consensus. Everyone from the foreign minister to the sports minister to the parliamentary leader of the Catalan  nationalists (don't ask) has weighed in, along with the redoubtable socialist leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, never one to miss a good populist opportunity. A protest has been launched, an inquiry will be had, and many, many opinions about the French and what they are good for will be shared at bars all around the country. 

This was all to be expected. Spaniards enjoy a good ribbing as much as anyone, but they also have a well-developed national talent for umbrage, made all the keener when the offending party is French (or, better, the French). It is generally suspected here, probably accurately, that the French look down on their western neighbours; Spaniards attribute this to the fact that they have a habit of winning French sports competitions, particularly the Tour de France and the French Open. This is doubtless the case, but it misses the rather obvious point that the Spanish are hardly the only targets of French disdain. Just ask the English, or the Americans, or the Germans for that matter.

More to the point, although they are hardly a flag-waving people, the Spanish invest a great deal of national pride in their sports stars, who have, to be fair, racked up outsize achievements in the last few years. I have had more than one perfectly reasonable Spaniard explain to me that their victory in the 2010 football World Cup was especially sweet at a time of such economic distress, as if the 23% unemployment rate was not primarily a matter of aggregated private tragedy but of hurt national pride, for which the achievements of an elite but frankly overpaid group of young men can be considered ample compensation. Tell that to the people on the dole queue.

At any rate, it's almost heartwarming, at a time of profound polarisation, to see the Spanish overcoming their differences and getting on their collective high horse about something. There's nothing like a bit of outrage to keep the blood flowing in the cold weather, after all. And nobody really liked French cheese anyway.

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