Last Saturday, the Tour de France was kicked off in France. Starting at Mont Saint-Michel, going through Andorra and ending in Paris, this annual spectacle of cyclists from all over the world always gets the heart of any cyclist-fan racing (pardon the pun…). I am not one of those fans. Despite the fact that I am Dutch and we left our mother’s womb cycling, cycling races has never attracted my interest.
So…then why this article?
If you live in Slovakia, there is no way you could have missed the news about the Slovak cycling sensation called Peter Sagan. Whether you are actively following his career or you simply came across the T-Mobile commercial on TV and/or on billboards around the country, “the Terminator” from Žilina could not have escaped your attention.
In 2015, the then 26 year old found world fame by becoming World Champion in men’s road race, during the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in the USA. Before that, he got on the winning stage twice at the Paris-Nice race, three times at the Tirreno-Adriatico race, no less than a staggering amount of thirteen times at the Tour de Suisse, and so on, and so on. And now, he is competing in the Tour de France. Since 2012, he won the points classification in the Tour each consecutive year. In fact, as I am writing this blog post, I read that last Sunday (3 July), Sagan won the second (hilly) stage in the Tour de France.
I am not an expert in the field of cyclist sport, but I guess you can call that a talent. Considered as one of the most promising young talents, the international press quickly caught wind of him and could not remain far away with their praise. One of them, sent to me by a good (Dutch) friend of mine (and Tour-fan), from a Dutch newspaper (click here for the original article), describes Sagan as a “falcon with a cycling diploma” who stands for a “guaranteed spectacle, no matter where and when he races” both on and off the track. Known for his interviews in absolutely terrible English, watching him on TV is even for a non-Tour fan a fun thing to do.
(NB: For those who wonder where you can get a “cycling diploma” – In the Netherlands, we learn how to ride a bike from a very early stage, starting off with three wheels and then finishing with two. If you are successfull, you’d get a “diploma” and an orange flag for on your bike, signalling to all participants in traffic that you just became part of the most awesome and, arguably, the most terrifying group of road users)
It doesn’t even matter if this quote is exaggerated or not. Reading up on Sagan’s career and successes, I started to realize that, regardless of the fact whether you are a cyclist-aficionado or couldn’t give a damn about anything on two wheels (or any sport, for that matter), you’d have to appreciate the fact that YOUR countryman is putting YOUR country on the sports map of the world. No matter how you feel about Sagan personally, he as a sportsman represents Slovakia the moment he gets on that bike and climbs that hill in France, beating his competition to the finish in Switzerland and wins that parkour in the US. Him becoming World Champion can not be seen as only a personal triumph of his talent, but should definitively also be seen as a triumph of the country that brought him forth into the world of sports. His base is here, this is where he trained, and this is the country that taught him how to ride those hills.
I admit that such feeling should always go both ways. If the country and its people should be proud of their sportsmen, sportsmen should be just as proud to represent their country. They should never forget where their home is and where they came from. In general, I believe this feeling is pretty well spread among the Slovak sportsmen, even though it doesn’t always seem to bear fruit in terms of results. I don’t think, however, for a second, that this has anything to do with the presence of “patriotism” or lack thereof. Results are first and foremost driven by talent, training and endurance. If any of these elements are missing or remain undeveloped, the results could remain aloof, no matter how “patriotic” you are.
Slovakia as a country, as a government and as a sports federation, should never loose sight of this. Sports can have an amazing impact on the representation of one’s country. In some situations even more than politics, charity or religion. Look at how fiercely proud Iceland was to get so far into the European Football Championship! Even though they lost against France in the quarter finals, they went home head held high and were welcomed by an insanely proud nation! Sport binds people together and makes them realize who they are and where they come from.
I, for one, am very happy living here in Slovakia. However, once the Netherlands is playing football at, for example, the World Championship, you will find me shouting, screaming and cheering for the Orange team. Not even reaching the group stage of the European Championship this year felt like a disgrace to me. It is a national pride thing. Sports can do that to a person. I am not patriotic at all in the political sense. I am, however, proud to be Dutch when the Dutch team is playing. More than that, I am proud to live in Slovakia when the Slovaks are playing, for example, ice-hockey or football. I cheer for them as if they were my own people. I feel for them when they loose. I am angry at them when they screw up. I scream when they scored. Again, it is a pride thing.
Therefore, I am incredibly happy to see how well Peter Sagan from Žilina is doing in his field of sports. He is carrying with him the symbolical flag of Slovakia on his shoulders every time he rides that bike. His success puts Slovakia on the front page of the sports papers all over the world. It is people like him, the Slovak nation should be proud of.