27 June 2016

My Bike Went To Puerto Rico. But My Soccer Ball Didn't.

This morning in my local post office, one of the clerks was chatting with a customer.

"So, are you following the Copa America?"

The customer shook his head.  "In Puerto Rico, no soccer.  Just beisbol."

It had never occured to me before.  Soccer--or what the rest of the world calls "football"--has never been very popular in Puerto Rico or, for that matter, the Dominican Republic or Cuba.  Or Haiti.  On the other hand, lots of young people play--and lots of people, young and old watch--the game in Jamaica and Trinidad.

Although futbol has grown steadily in the US--newscasts routinely feature the results of matches--interest in the game seems to have bypassed Puerto Rico, at least for the time being.

The customer added this observation:  "In Mexico, they love futbol."

His observations are accurate.  In fact, Mexico even hosted the 1970 World Cup tournament, which attracted practically no attention in the US.

It's as if Customs and Immigration were stopping every ball floating across the Rio Grande or rolling across the line in the sand that separates California, Arizona and New Mexico from the country to which they once belonged.  Hmm...Would Donald Trump try to stop the "beautiful game" from invading America's heartland?

Now, one could argue that the reason why baseball gained such popularity in La Isla del Incanto, but soccer didn't, was the influence of the US, which colonized the island in 1898 as one of the spoils (along with Cuba and the Phillipines) of victory in its war against Spain.  Speaking of which...the Phillipines have never been known as a soccer powerhouse.

I mention the conversation, and my musings about it, because it got me to thinking about why certain sports, including cycling, become popular in one place but not in another.

From "My Bike Went to Puerto Rico", in  Bicycling

Bicycling has been both a popular spectator and participant sport (and recreational activity) in most European countries, and in England, practically from the time bicycles first appeared.  Until World War I, it was at least a popular in the US.  Right up to the six-day races of the 1930s, some of the best racers in the world were American, and at least until Babe Ruth reached his prime, cyclists were among the best-paid athletes.

The decline of cycling in the US, particularly in two decades or so after World War II, has been attributed to increased affluence-- which put the price of automobiles within reach of most working people and families--along with the construction of the Interstate highway system and cheap gasoline.  It took longer for affluence to come to Europe, and even after it did, the price of cars and, especially gas, remained prohibitive for many people.  

So, bicycles continued to serve as a primary means of transportation, and even recreation, in Europe, particularly among the working and middle classes.  Also, my tours on the continent were made possible, in part, by well-developed systems of secondary and tertiary roads through the countryside and small towns, especially in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England.  Much of the United States lacked such routes; in fact, in some remote areas (for example, in the Rocky Mountains and the deserts), the interstate highways were the first roads to be built.  So, while Americans were taking to the highways for their vacations, Europeans continued to pedal the paths of Provence and byways of the Black Forest.

It's been said that because Europeans vacationed as well as commuted on their bicycles, they appreciated the physical effort and discipline it took to ride long distances, day after day, and that is why they continued to support bicycle racing.  Meanwhile, in the 'States, kids pedaled to school or the park, and their bikes were discarded as soon as they got their drivers' licenses.  So, they couldn't understand, let alone care, about grown men (or women) riding hard and fast every day for three weeks, only to win or lose by seconds.

Those explanations make some kind of sense, up to a point.  For one thing, it doesn't explain why the British developed a cycling culture--and racing scene--that was, at least until the 1960s, almost entirely separate from that of the Continent. (The Brits tended to focus on time trialing more than stage races.)  Also, it doesn't explain why other countries where people were, arguably, even more dependent on their bicycles than Europeans were, never developed a significant racing scene.  I'm thinking about countries like India and Pakistan, where the main sports seem to be cricket, rugby, field hockey and the ancient indigenous game of kabaddi.  Additionally, I'm thinking about China, where there are more bikes and people riding them than in any other place on earth.  Although races have become more commonplace in recent years, Japan, with about a tenth of the population, still has more events and competitors.

I understand that more cycling events, including tours and races, are also winding their way through Puerto Rico.  Although cycling might well be more popular than soccer on the island, it remains to be seen whether it attains the status that it has even on the mainland US, let alone that of beisbol.

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