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Foreign participation in Women’s Cross Country, like the Men’s, is here to stay: What are we going to do about it?

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Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2022. 1:15 pm CST.

Photo Credit: William George Ysaguirre

By Rubén Morales Iglesias: The Men’s Holy Saturday Cross Country started out as a hiking trip, an expedition to Cayo back in 1928. Elston Kerr being the first winner. The expedition took the young men the entire Easter weekend during which they even visited Benque Viejo del Carmen. It became so popular that it’s still being held 94 years later.

But over the years it changed with the times.

The Cross Country, as it’s known locally, became something profoundly Belize but it was ok to invite foreigners, mainly Mexicans. After all, a Belizean always won. When Pablo Mexican Calderón won it in 1971 … it was the exception, but it certainly must have made Belizeans cry out against foreign competition. But then things changed when American Ward Zauner won it in 1987 because foreigners, Americans to be specific, won it for three years in a row. Many a Belizean was up in arms about allowing foreigners. It was ok to invite them as long as they didn’t win.

The local teams, in their zest to win, brought stronger and stronger foreigners and when the Belizean riders, who the foreigners were riding for as domestiques, could not respond, the team owners unleashed the foreigners and they were simply too much. After a while, Belizeans caught up led by Charlie Lewis in the early nineties proving that they had what it takes even setting new records.

Then the Mexicans and Guatemalans joined the Americans in winning the Cross Country.

And Belizeans are in disagreement as to their inclusion. In fact, many are even against Belizean Americans like Justin Williams.

And now the question has surfaced again … but for women’s cycling.

The women’s Cross Country Cycling Classic has for the most part, like the Men’s used to be, been a Belizeans-only thing.

Back in 2003, Mexican Brenda Aguayo blew away the competition and set the record of 3:07:27 in 2003 for the 73-mile race.

But no foreigner had won until this year when US cyclists Katy Sorrell and Morgan Stern, like Aguayo, blew away the competition by half an hour.

And the talk about foreigners resurfaced.

But foreign participation is here to stay, as in the Men’s. Like it or not.

Their participation is going to happen again and again because the world has opened up and practically all countries have foreigners in their sports.

The problem with cycling is that though it’s a team sport, the winner is individual. At least in the style of riding we do in Belize where we only have road racing and criteriums. No other modality.

Football and basketball, to name just the two leading sports, have had quite a number of foreigners but as team sports it’s not as controversial though having five foreigners playing in a football team cuts Belizeans’ possibilities of playing.

But back to women’s cycling.

While not many women compete in women’s cycling, the pandemic complicated things plus the fact that Belize’s top rider, Kaya Cattouse had to join her international pro-team, LA Sweat, just before the Cross Country. She is the only Belizean cyclist who has been extremely active during the pandemic travelling to the United States and competing in races there. So much so that those races were her ticket to be signed by LA Sweat.

The other riders here at home have been riding very little. For all her zest and fearlessness young Gabrielle Gabourel is still far from her very best at 16 years of age. Better days are to come for her. Same for 19-year-old Paulita Chavarria. That’s if they stick to the sport.

2021 National Road champion Alicia Thompson was out for a while. The Cross Country on Sunday was her first race of the year.

The other riders like Patricia Chavarria, Fiona Castillo, Gabrielle Lovell, and Marinette Flowers have been away from the sport and are just making a comeback. Kedisha Francis and Stephanie Lovell, from what I understand, are relatively new to the sport, at least competitive wise here.

So, it’s safe to say that Belize’s women’s field was not ready for international competition this year.

The reality is that it is unfair for the local riders, men or women, to ride one or a hundred races a year in Belize against local riders only and when a big race like the Cross Country comes up, foreigners are invited or allowed. But remember that Belize being a part of the International Cycling Union and races held under their banner, allows for international participation.

The solution is for foreigners to be brought for local races or for Belizean cyclists to compete abroad. Both are a problem however. Foreigners won’t come for ‘poco tiempo’ races and Belizean riders, though some like Kaya do, will have problems going abroad due to the costs that come with it.

Another problem women’s cycling has been experiencing is numbers. There have been instances when just five or six riders compete in races. Not enough. In fact, Alicia and Kaya have had to race against the men for lack of women’s competition.

A conscientious effort has to be made to recruit more riders. That has been an eternal problem. See the field this year … only two young riders. Gabrielle Gabourel and Paulita Chavarria. Gabrielle had no competition in the Junior Category. Had the older riders not made a comeback to the sport, the field would have been five or seven instead of 11.

So, it’s more complicated than it looks. Or maybe, it’s easier than it looks. Depends on your take.

Fact is foreign participation is here to stay. We have to live with it. But if it hurts, then we’ve got to do something about it.

Support the local riders so that they can step up!

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