Colombian Minister of Sport Jairo Clopatofsky has big aspirations for cycling and sport in his country. To win the Tour de France, with a Colombian rider in a Colombian team may still seem a dream, but it is something Clopatofsky is pursuing very seriously.
With the emergence of several riders in the last few years from Colombia, a cycling boom within the country seems to be well underway and Clopatovsky is eager to capitalise on that momentum. He recalls the years when cycling legends like Lucho Herrera brought hope to Colombia at a time, when corruption and crime were rife and that he still considers among the darkest in the South American country's history.
But it is not necessarily success that Clopatofsky is aiming for. Though of course he has high hopes for the new Colombia-Coldeportes team in to which he has invested significantly through the Ministry of Sport, Clopatofsky hopes to go further, by using cycling, and sport in general as a medium to unite Colombia.
"The power of sport is stronger than any other cultural force,” said Clopatofsky. "It is something that helps to unify countries – through peace rather than through conflict. It took me a long time to realize this. For a long time, I was convinced that force was the only way.
"But I have been inspired by people like Nelson Mandela. Mandela used Rugby in South Africa to help bring together a divided nation. I think we can do the same with cycling in Colombia."
Clopatovsky is not deterred by the challenge ahead, in fact he has earned a reputation for tackling the hard tasks within Colombia. He became paraplegic at the age of 20, but he rose above that setback to pursue a successful career in politics. He was a renegade in the early 90s when he tried to sway a culture of corruption in the Colombian political structure, and now as the newly appointed Minister of Sport he wants to put in policies that will set Colombia up for a long and rich era of sporting success.
"I'm not afraid of challenges, I'm not afraid of anything," said Clopatofsky. "Life has taught me that you can either face up to things that confront you, or you can wither away. When I was in a hospital bed, and the doctor told me that I could no longer walk I had to confront that, and I have never failed to face a challenge in my life since.
"I campaigned to set up a separate ministry for sport, and I was criticised for it," said Clopatofsky. "There was a time that I doubted whether I had made the right decision to do so. But since things have changed, we doubled our medal tally at the Pan American Games this year, and I hope with Claudio [Corti], who I have a lot of respect for we can do even more in Europe next year with Coldeportes."
"We will have the colours of Colombia on the jersey to represent the country. We want the team to represent Colombia on the international stage, and we want people to easily recognise that."
"I think with the riders in the team we can inspire the country again, that is my hope."
With riders of the calibre of Jhoan Esteban Chavez, who won the Tour de l'Avenir this year, and Fabio Duarte who was under 23 world champion in 2008, the future is bright, and perhaps the dreams of Clopatofsky will indeed become a reality.
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