In Praise of Reading and Fiction

In Praise of Reading and Fiction

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“This one goes out to those who read of General Simon Bolivar last days, feel the intense smell of dampness of the Colombian jungle, and start sweating because of the humidity. Even if they are about to switch off the light, they are in their bed, and they live in Torino”

(Singapore, October 2021)

My mum has a kind of morning ritual. Every day she walks with my dad to a park close to her apartment in Paris and checks the content of her “passe-livre”. A passe-livre is one of the many “French exceptions”, like the legal obligation for radios to broadcast a given, and big, percentage of French songs. People go to their favorite passe-livre, which is often a kind of wooden birds house, and drop the books that they have read. Everyone can go and pick the books that someone else left, for free. Normally, people pick up and drop books, and this creates a balanced system where written thought circulates freely everywhere. Your freedom to read is granted, even if you are broke.

You may be asking yourself: “Why is he telling this story?”. I am telling this story because, when my mum walks home with the random book-catch of the day, she is happy. I have never seen anyone happy because of social media.

A few days ago, a whistleblower revealed something that we all already know: Facebook top management is well aware of the fact that the algorithms they use to build engagement have horrible effects on people, especially teenagers and girls. Hate speech propagates thanks to such algorithms design and children’s self-esteem is deeply harmed by a social media instigated culture of untouchable eternal fun and physical perfection. Facebook decision makers know but prefer to look somewhere else, as hate and depressed teenagers make for good money. Facebook spokespersons, and Mark Zuckerberg, denied all allegations, and again, I suppose we all know that they are lying. 

Books are old school and today many cultures and tribes replaced them with phones, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and what else, but a die-hard bunch still believes that written thought can make better human beings. One of them is my mum, and another one is Mario Vargas Llosa who, when awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, delivered a memorable lecture.

I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that Mario Vargas Llosa does not have an Instagram account. My mum certainly does not.

Mr. Llosa full lecture can be found here.

In Praise of Reading and Fiction

I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.

I wish my mother were here, a woman who was moved to tears reading the poems of Amado Nervo and Pablo Neruda, and Grandfather Pedro too, with his large nose and gleaming bald head, who celebrated my verses, and Uncle Lucho, who urged me so energetically to throw myself body and soul into writing even though literature, in that time and place, compensated its devotees so badly. Throughout my life I have had people like that at my side, people who loved and encouraged me and infected me with their faith when I had doubts. Thanks to them, and certainly to my obstinacy and some luck, I have been able to devote most of my time to the passion, the vice, the marvel of writing, creating a parallel life where we can take refuge against adversity, one that makes the extraordinary natural and the natural extraordinary, that dissipates chaos, beautifies ugliness, eternalizes the moment, and turns death into a passing spectacle.

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. When Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, and Julien Sorel climbs to the scaffold, and when, in “El sur,” the urban doctor Juan Dahlmann walks out of that tavern on the pampa to face a thug’s knife, or we realize that all the residents of Comala, Pedro Páramo’s village, are dead, the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas. Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and from of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits nonconformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.

The Swell Season

The Swell Season

This one goes out to my wonderful, loved wife. Baby, let’s paddle out and ride the next one together to the end
(Belfaux, December 2020)

Very interesting thoughts have been seeded in my mind during lonely training sessions at the gym. Maybe endorphins make my brain more receptive, so I like to listen to smart thinkers while training. The words I listen while I exercise hover at the surface of my mind for a while and often sink later, when I am in a more meditative mindset. One of the great things about humans is that thinkers come in all shapes and colors. We should always be humble: we never know who the person sitting next to us is. Despite being a legend of surfing, Gerry Lopez, also known as Mr. Pipeline, has an ordinary look. I recently listened to Gerry speaking at Wanderlust Speakeasy, on Youtube. In his talk, he takes the audience through the beauty of nature and life, seen through the lenses of Yoga and surf. Here follow the transcript of that talk and some of its many memorable quotes.

1. Quotes

Gerry Lopez quotes

“Life is for living. Life is a series of moments all strung together, moment to moment. While it may not be possible to live every single moment to its fullest potential, if we keep that intention in mind we will get more out of life than if we are too consumed, too anxious, too distracted, too oblivious, or simply not paying attention”

97 points in two games

97 points in two games

Going through physical pain and health issues is annoying but we have to be prepared to it as it is an unavoidable part of life; everyone eventually gets old and even individuals that seem immortal cannot escape this rule. Let me get it straight, with an example: everyone gets old and this includes Micheal Jordan.

In January 2000, Jordan returned to the NBA for the second time, after his memorable “I am back” in 1995. That time he would return not as a player, but as part owner and president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards. The next summer, Jordan hired his old Chicago Bulls head coach, Doug Collins as Washington’s coach for the upcoming season, a decision that many saw as foreshadowing another Jordan return.

On September 25, 2001, Jordan announced his second NBA comeback as a player in the team he partially owned. Here follows a story that Doug Collins told an ESPN interviewer; it is a snapshot of Micheal Jordan exceptional NBA career sunset. This story goes out to those that were lucky enough to witness this fantastic basketball player dominate the game throughout the nineties.


Micheal Jordan dunk

When I was coaching in Washington we played the Indiana Pacers and we were down 25 at the end of the third quarter. I took Micheal out of the game and I said: “look Micheal, I know you think that we can still win this game but we got to play again soon, you know. If we make a little run tonight I’ll put you back in the game”, but we didn’t.

I found out after the game was over that he had eight points in the game and he broke a streak of like eight hundred and sixty something games in double figures and so the media was: “you know, how do you think Micheal is going to be with this?”

I said: “You know what? Micheal has got championships, rings, he’s got gold medals, he’s got NCAA championships, he’s got MVPs. He is not going to care about the eight points”.

So he (Micheal Jordan) met with the media and agreed.

You know, the bus is lonely as a coach when you’re sitting there after you got your head handed to you, so I was sitting on the bus and actually Micheal had hired me. He was the part owner and president General Manager and he hired me to be the coach and then he came back to play.

I’ll never forget this moment. As his coach this to me was greatness.

He got on the bus and said “scoot over”. Then he looked at me and said: “Do you think I can still play?” and I said: “Absolutely, that’s why I am here to help you”.

He said: “You know, to be my coach you have to believe in me and believe I can still play”, and I said: “Micheal, I believe in you”.

He said: “You did the right thing tonight, you did the right thing tonight. I don’t care about the points but I needed to know that you believed in me”.

Fast forward; we get on the plane, he has a few cocktails, smokes a couple cigars, all the things you’re not supposed to do. We get back about 3.30 in the morning in Washington. At 7.30 that morning he is in the fitness room with Tim Grover, training like you can’t believe. Nice 41 years old. We play the New Jersey Nets next night and Micheal scores the first three times he has the ball.

Byron Scott takes a timeout and Micheal comes over and says:

“I want the ball right there the rest of the game and don’t take me out until I tell you”

And so that’s fine by me but with two minutes to go in the game he gives me the sign like that’s enough.

I take him out of the game, he walks over the bench and I say: “Micheal, what happened tonight?”

He said: “Well, the guy that was guarding me told me his back was hurting, don’t ever tell me you got a problem, I’ll make you pay for that”.

51 points later, 51 points at age 41, he came back the next game with 46 (points) and he looked at me and said: “I told you I could still play”.

97 points in two games. I was absolutely blown away at what this guy could do with his mind, how strong he was, and he is playing on one leg, and he cut his finger doing a cigar, all his finger was bent, he had a bad knee; the competitive will and great, I’ve never seen anything like that, but that moment when he looked at me and asked if I still believed in him, as this is the greatest player to play the game wanting to know if I still believed in him. It was a moment I would never ever forget.


Micheal Jordan played his last NBA game on April 16, 2003, in Philadelphia and retired for good at the end of the season.  He scored 32292 points in his NBA career and for the impact he had on the game and his unparalleled skills, is generally regarded as the greatest basketball player of all times.

Once were heroes… Fallen angels

Once were heroes… Fallen angels

This is the second of two blog posts about Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

In Once were heroes… shining stars, we revisited the stories of Usain Bolt, Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps, maybe the most memorable Rio heroes, that combined for a total of 9 gold medals.

All medals have a reverse and Olympic ones make no exception: while the three men I just named ascended the highest heights of sports glory, four girls were hiding in a dark corner at the opposite end of the trajectory, sharing a tale of falls and painful defeats.

It is now time to look at the other side and into the life of few athletes whose names are not to be found on Rio Olympic champions lists.

Falls – Part I

Pole vaulting is a raffinate exercise of subtlety. In order to excel, an athlete has to perfectly control every fraction of his body and mind, while melting together speed, precision, grace, power, guts, iron muscles, lightness. In no other track and field specialty, a human body falls from a higher height than pole vault.

Yelena Isinbayeva jumped thousands of times in the long decade where she dominated this discipline and was trained to fall like no other. Nevertheless, the fall she had to experience while preparing for Rio, was of a kind she never endured before. A kind that hurts badly.

Nothing in Yelena childhood and family background anticipated that she would become one of the most successful athletes ever. Born from a humble family, her father is a plumber, her mother a shop assistant, she approached sports at the age of 5, when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in her hometown Volgograd, Russia. At that time, they both worked full time and were looking for a way to keep Yelena busy.

She trained as a gymnast until at the age of 15 she attained the height of 1.74 meters and became too tall to be competitive in gymnastics. One day, her coach suggested she tried track and fields and pole vault but Yelena objected that she had never heard of such discipline. Her coach told her that if she did not like it, she did not have to continue. She ended up listening to the advice and her brilliant career was started.

Yelena Isinbayeva was undefeated for almost six consecutive years between 2004 and 2009, establishing an amazing 30 world records along the way. She was the first woman to pass the mythical bar of 5 meters, both indoor and outdoor and improved the world record by a total 24 centimeters. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2004, 2005 and 2008.

Many coaches analyzed Yelena jumps and observed that what sets her apart from any other woman specialist is her exemplary mastering of the so-called “L-Phase”, where it is vital to use the pole’s rebound to convert horizontal speed into height. They credited her gymnastic background for such a better gesture. Yelena explained her approach to pole vaulting with simpler words: “I like that I can control my body” she said once. “I like to fly. I like those feelings when you’re over the bar. It’s more beautiful than other track and field events.”

I witnessed one of her world records a summer night in Monaco in 2008, where she raised the bar to 5.04 meters and passed it. Yelena is a very communicative athlete: I remember that night her eyes full of joy and absolute determination.

In an unconventional move for an athlete of her caliber, who can easily make several hundred thousands of dollars at each appearance, in 2010 Isinbayeva decided to take a break from competitions.

She came back one year later, to face a fiercer pool of opponents. After conquering a bronze medal in 2012 London Olympic games she started cultivating the wish of a retirement in style, after Rio Olympics, a gold medal around her neck.

Another couple of years passed, Isinbayeva took another break to give birth to her daughter Eva in June 2014. In December of that same year another member of Russian athletics team, Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, appeared in a documentary on German television uncovering a large-scale doping fraud: Russian athletics officials supplied banned substances in exchange for 5% of athletes earnings and falsified tests together with doping control officers. Successive investigations revealed implication of Russian government, RUSADA (Russia anti-doping agency), secret services, WADA (World anti-doping agency), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). Two former directors of RUSADA died in 2016; one of them had just approached the newspapers telling that he would publish a book on Russia state doping.

The scandal eventually led International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian track and field athletes from 2016 Rio Olympic games. In August 2016, WADA reported that Yuliya Stepanova’s account, containing confidential information like her personal address, had been hacked while no other athlete profile had been accessed. Stepanova and her husband had fled Russia after appearing on German television in 2014; after giving a fundamental contribution to the fight to re-establish transparency in sports, today they seek asylum in foreign countries and fear for their lives. They have been completely abandoned by sports institutions.

The ban was the sunset of Yelena Isinbayeva Olympic dreams: she was denied the possibility to compete, despite a spotless 14 years career where she never tested positive to an anti-doping examination. In a press conference, she said: “I will never agree with, and never forgive, my exclusion from the Olympics”. Paradoxically, being banned as a result of a doping scandal, she has been elected by  fellows to serve an 8-year term on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission.

After Rio, during the Russian nationals, Yelena Isinbayeva posted the 2016 world leading jump of 4.90m and finally announced retirement.

Falls – Part II

The problem, in sports today, is that often the show on display on our TVs is pure fiction. We pretend to believe that what we see is real, but we know that it’s not true. Athletes take forbidden substances that enhance their performances and in doing so are covered by organizers, sponsors, sports institutions, that all happily sing with one voice “the show must go on”. Illegal betting alters results of football, tennis and many others sports worldwide.

From the very moment sponsors and television money invited themselves to the party and started crunching sportsmanship ideals, the race between doping and anti-doping technologies is as intense as the chase to new records.

The reality is that Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 track and field were not the only cheats. Others have been unmasked during the games, many have probably gone uncaught, some will fall and will have to return their medals in the years to come when anti-doping tests will be repeated on samples collected in Rio. In this situation, believing in sports today is almost impossible.

I said “almost” because from time to time, we witness stories like the one of Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin.

The episode has become iconic, but I wish to recall it to those who missed it.

Heat 2 of women 5000 meters. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin line up with favorite Almaz Ayana to chase a place in the final. In the second part of the race, while athletes are grouped in a confused bunch, the two girls collide and crash on the blue track.

Hamblin remembers: “(one moment after the fall I was down, thinking) What’s hit me? Why am I on the ground? And then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, ‘Get up, get up! We have to finish this!’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this!’ ”.

The voice was D’Agostino’s who jumped back on her feet and was about to restart running when she saw that Hamblin was still not moving. Nikki raised herself and the two girls resumed the race, but D’Agostino was clearly hurting and soon collapsed again. This time, Hamblin was there to lend a hand.

Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino fall in 5000m Heat 2
Abbey D’Agostino stumbles on Nikki Hamblin in 5000m Heat 2

Get up! We have to finish this!
Get up! We have to finish this!

Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino crying on the finish line
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino crying on the finish line

D'Agostino in a weelchair greeted by Hamblin
D’Agostino in a wheelchair greeted by Hamblin

4 and 1/2 laps, almost 2000 meters, were still to go. Hamblin injury being way less serious than D’Agostino’s, Nikki passed the finishing line well behind the other athletes, in 16:43.61. Exhausted, she turned around and saw D’Agostino staggering down the track; Abbey finally crossed the line at the last place, more than two minutes after the winner, with a time of 17:10.02.

Nikki Hamblin waited for Abbey D’Agostino on the finish line, passed her arms around the other’s neck, then the two girls cried together.

Abbey D’Agostino had run for more than two kilometers with a torn cruciate ligament and was in too much pain to leave the track on her own feet. When race officers urged for a wheelchair Nikki helped Abbey to sit down and kept looking at her as she was carried away.

“I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that” Hamblin later declared and her words are the best possible end of the story.

The metaphorical medal that Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin won in Rio is more precious than Schooling, Bolt and Phelps ones and even more deserved than the one denied to Yelena Isinbayeva. It is a medal made of transparent, clean and fresh air, a substance that in today sports is much more needed and rare than gold.


Original images of this sportsmanship tale can be found here. Watch them, they are really refreshing.


Other sports stories on this blog


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Once were heroes… Shining stars

Once were heroes… Shining stars

Lights went down on 2016 Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic Games a few weeks ago and athletes from different disciplines are again spread around the world.

National football championships replaced badminton, Judo and synchronized swimming on our TVs and sport fans habits are back to normal routines. However, how amazing it is, every four years, to observe sports stop worldwide, as stars athletes move in the Olympic village along with perfect unknowns and compete for the same objective! Olympic Games are a comet: a bright periodic collision between ideals of sport and reality of money.

In this cycle of two posts, I will take you through the stories of a handful of Olympic heroes, examples of talent and dedication that enlightened Rio nights. Today I start with two phenomenal athletes, bearing destiny in their names.

Catch me if  you can

Bolt noun (LIGHTNING):  a flash of lightning that looks like a white line against the sky

“I am a living legend”, Usain Bolt said at a press conference on 12th of August 2016, after dominating the 200 meters final in Rio and no one could really argue. The statement came just before the curtain fell on his last Olympics, enshrined by Jamaican relay team win in 4*100, leading Bolt to his third triple-gold medal.

As of today, Usain Bolt has nine gold medals in Olympic Games, 11 in Athletics World championships; he holds the world record in 100m, 200m and 4*100m. Before him, no sprinter had even come close to such records, and the one that will equal such performances is probably not born yet.

Usain is today 30 years old and the remaining of his athlete career is likely to be a sweet celebration of his legendary gestures, a few more displays of his trademark lightning sign, retirement and immediate induction into track and field hall of fame, a “best of all times” tag close to his name.

After his tenure is over, will his records be what we’ll remember best of Usain Bolt?

History will tell but, besides his monster performances, the Jamaican surely deserves to be remembered for the way he turned track and field sprint disciplines upside down. From the very first moment he appeared on the running track, all in him seemed to be coming from another world, starting from his features making him better suited for volley or basketball than sprint. Usain is 1.95m and, while his competitors are often short and very compact, he is slim and abnormally tall. His reaction times, not the best in class, and his body structure slightly handicapped him in his late days in 100m. On the other hand, his unusual height makes him simply unbeatable in the 200m, once he can fully develop his speed.

Usain Bolt persona is unusual too, to say the least. Before him, sprinters used to be arrogant, nervous, and unapproachable. When the Jamaican appeared on the scene, he started a carnival of his own: he would smile and play with cameras in the most terrifying moments, just before Olympics 100m starter gunshot. During the race, he would relax, slow down, hit his chest in a dominating sign, turn and look around, all before the finish line. Then he would smile, again and again. In case you missed it,  give a look to Rio 200m semi-finals finishing and appreciate how Usain plays with Andre De Grasse in a hilarious “catch me if you can” movie remake.

The show is not over, yet, but the end is coming closer. After Usain Bolt retirement grim athletes will likely take possession of sprint again and world-class athletics will no longer be as fun. He has been the fastest but also one of the coolest dudes on Earth and for almost a decade he managed to make us believe that 100m in around nine seconds is as easy as a smile.

Maybe this is the biggest lightning Bolt legacy.

23 to 1

School verb [ T ]: to train a person or animal to do something

I have been living in Singapore for almost three years and, since I moved here, I am intrigued and fascinated by this small country. What startles me most is how everything is carefully planned and relentlessly executed.

This systematic approach led Singapore to great achievements: the country is today a full-scale lab where social, technological, economic experiments happen every month, most of the time ending up in an improvement of collective conditions of living. Of course, the medal has a dark side, but I am not going to talk about it in this post.

Before Rio, Singapore constant performance improvement score was not showing up at all in sports. After participating to 15 previous editions of the Games, Singapore Olympic medal count was stuck at a sad zero (gold medals), two (silver), two (bronze).

At the opposite side of Olympic success spectrum stood Michael Phelps, the almost unbeatable swimmer who, before lining up for his fifth Olympic games in Rio had already won an amazing 18 gold medals, holding the enviable title of most decorated Olympian of all times.

Allow me to roll back time to a morning in 2008 when U.S. swimming team visited a Singapore club where a 13-years old local kid, named Joseph Schooling, was training. Phelps was part of the team and back then had already won six gold medals, more Olympic metal than a talented athlete can dream of.

Schooling recalled that morning in a recent interview: “They came to the country club that I trained at, everyone just rushed up and was like “it’s Michael Phelps! It’s Michael Phelps!’ and I really wanted a picture … It was very early in the morning and I was so shocked, I couldn’t really open my mouth”.

After that morning, Phelps continued dominating the scene for the years to come: the only upset came from South African Chad Le Clos, who beat him in London 2012 Olympics 200 meters butterfly. After London, Phelps announced his retirement but came back in 2014, when he started preparing for next Olympics in Rio where he wished to right his wrong towards Le Clos.

One year after meeting Phelps, inspired by the American and supported by his family, Joseph Schooling, the young Singaporean, moved to the United States, first going to Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before attending the University of Texas, where he became a member of the Texas Longhorns swimming team, one of the top collegiate swim programs. Across the years, Joseph underwent continuous improvement in butterfly style swimming. He easily qualified for Rio 2016 Olympics, where he was bound to meet Michael Phelps again, but this time, the encounter was set to happen in the pool.

While everyone was looking at the unfolding of rivalry between Phelps and Le Clos, an underrated Schooling dominated his 100m butterfly semifinals on 11th of August. When swimmers positioned themselves on the starting blocks again for the final the day after, Goliath (Phelps) was in lane 2  and David (Schooling) in lane 4.

Many know the end of the story: Schooling claimed the win against his personal hero Phelps in one of the most surprising Olympic results ever. He led the race from the start and in an unseen final rush, Phelps, Le Clos and László Cseh of Hungary, touched the wall together, exactly three-quarters of seconds later, clinching a collective silver medal.

During the victory lap after the race, Schooling turned to Phelps and said, “Dude this is crazy, out of this world, I don’t know how to feel right now”. Phelps smiled and simply replied, “I know”.

Upon his return to his country, Schooling, the first ever-Singaporean Olympic gold medalist, was acclaimed like a God. He received a prize of one Million Singapore dollars (~730000 US $) and a parade was organized to celebrate his glory.

Today Olympic gold medals count stands at 23 (for Phelps) against 1 (for Singapore), but for this little country, such a slim account could not taste sweeter.


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When the others go away

When the others go away

This is the first post in my blog new “Role Models” category.

An Italian proverb goes more or less: “lucky is the country that does not need heroes” and I fully buy into it. Superheroes belong to Marvel comics and many strong political leaders, often sung by today “journalists”, routinely walk over worn out democracy rules. Nevertheless, being part of the big human race circus can be confusing and role models are reassuring when we fail to see with clarity. I turn to them when facing complex situations or my own contradictions, and ask myself: “what would HE do?”; the answer I get in return is usually the right one. I have very few, they are quite unconventional, and I am happy to introduce them to you. Of course you’re not obliged to admire them like I do.

Before we start

It is time to take a few stands and give some credits:

Number 1: I usually illustrate this blog articles with relevant photos, but in this case, images will be neutral. This story is about a war surgeon whose life mission is to repair broken human bodies. Navigating the web, I found lots of pics documenting effect of cruelty on men, women, kids, babies. Those images are disturbing and I do not intend to shock or wake morbid curiosity. World Wide Web is out there for those who feel the need to see more.

Number 2: I will not promote anything else than expressions of creativity, such as bands, movies, books, writers, photographs, on this blog. Period.

Number 3: Just to immediately contradict the previous statement, at the end of the article you will find a link to a non-governmental organization website. This is a one-off and I am doing it because maybe after reading the story, you will think that these guys need support.

Number 4: Article below was written and belongs to , and appeared on the online version of The Guardian online edition on 14th of July 2013. You will find a few more links are at the end of the article.

Meet Gino Strada

Three years ago, the photographer Giles Duley walked into the Salam centre hospital in Sudan and was taken aback by what he saw. It was unlike any hospital he’d seen anywhere, let alone a country as desperate and chaotic as Sudan.

It performed world-class open-heart surgery free of charge, it was calm, ordered and spotlessly clean. “I mean absolutely spotless,” says Duley. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” At its centre was a beautiful garden. And there, in a corridor, he found the only unruly aspect of the entire operation: the man who created it all, a bearded, straggle-haired Italian called Gino Strada, leaning against a wall, chain-smoking.

In the studio in east London where Duley was photographing him for the Observer last week, Strada was still straggle-haired, still chain-smoking: “Though I can stay 10 hours at the table in the operating room and I don’t even think about a cigarette,” he says stepping outside to have a quick one between doing the interview and having his portrait taken. “I don’t even think about it until it’s over.”

The operating room is where Strada lives. He’s a surgeon, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who should be living comfortably in some well-to-do Italian suburb, but who instead has devoted the past two-and-a-bit decades of his life to living uncomfortably in some of the worst places on earth.

Aged 65, when other men’s thoughts might turn to retirement, Strada spends months-long stints in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or any other of the 47 healthcare centres worldwide set up and run by Emergency, the NGO he founded. Although both Strada and Emergency are practically unknown in the UK, he has quietly got on with doing the world’s dirty work: Emergency provides free high-quality medical care for the victims of war, 90% of whom are civilians, and the majority of whom are poor and have nowhere else to go.

“We think everyone has the right to be cured,” he says with the air of a man who’s been saying the same thing for decades. But then he has been doing exactly that. Which in part explains the world-weariness that accompanies him like a particularly faithful dog. (“He may appear tired and cynical on the surface,” says Duley, “but underneath he never relents.”) Strada has seen the very worst the world has to offer.

Even the most committed doctors rarely manage more than a few months in a war zone. Strada has done years and years. Emergency, in its 18 years of existence, has treated 5 million people under some of the most dangerous conditions in the world. He personally has operated on 30,000 people; an almost unimaginable number, I say.”Yes, but I always find it very, very interesting. When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy to go to the hospital. When I worked in Milan and I woke up in Italy, I wasn’t that excited; it was more like a routine.”

Emergency is doing extraordinary work, and yet that is not the most extraordinary thing about it – not the thing that struck Duley so forcefully when he walked into the hospital in Khartoum. The Salam centre for cardiac surgery is not some bush hospital patching people together with sticking plaster and a couple of aspirin: it offers world-class free cardiac treatment to patients from across Africa. (Many of its patients are young: rheumatic fever, which is endemic in Sudan and neighbouring countries, destroys the heart valves and disproportionately affects children and teenagers.) It’s the only hospital of its type on the entire continent and Strada’s view, which challenges most people’s ideas about how “aid” works, is quietly revolutionary. He believes that Emergency’s hospitals need to equal if not better those in the west.

But nobody believes that, I say. No other organisation is saying this.

“If you think of medicine as a human right, then you cannot have some hospitals that offer sophisticated, very effective, hi-tech medicine,” he says, “and then go to Africa and think, ‘OK, here’s a couple of vaccinations and a few shots’. Do we think that we human beings, we are all equal in rights and dignity, or not? We say, ‘Yes, we are.'”

At Emergency, he says, “we want to establish good hospitals, but how good should a hospital be to be good?” After a lot of debate, they decided the measure should be: “if it’s good enough that you would be happy to have one of your family members treated in it”.

Emergency’s hospital in Sudan is so clean that infection rates aren’t just lower than in hospitals in the UK and the US, they’re “lower by a power of 10”. And the cardiac centre is just the first in what he hopes will be a network of these specialist hospitals, all centres of excellence, that will stretch across Africa, the next being a paediatric facility in Uganda, designed by his good friend, the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

There’s an almost Fitzcarraldo quality to Strada – the Werner Herzog film about the man who pulled a steamship over a hill in order to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle. People thought Strada was nuts “and worse” when he decided to build a cutting-edge, world-class cardiac hospital in the Sudanese desert. “They wrote all kinds of things about it and me in Italy.” But he did it anyway. A children’s hospital on the shores of Lake Victoria designed by the man who co-created the Pompidou centre is relatively straightforward in comparison.

But then Strada negotiated with the Taliban at a time when Nato said negotiating with the Taliban was impossible, in order to operate a hospital behind their frontlines. He considers himself a surgeon above all else and, as a surgeon, he just likes fixing things.

“Emergency is just not like any other NGO,” says Duley. “I’ve worked with so many of them, but it’s just profoundly different in the way it treats people with such dignity and such respect. The hospitals are such oases of calm, they’re incredible.”

It’s impossible not to make Duley a part of this story, because he has championed Strada and Emergency’s work. He’s passionate about getting their story heard. During his visit to the Salam centre in Sudan, Strada urged him to visit Afghanistan, which Duley did. While he was there, as we’ve covered previously in the Observer, he was blown up and lost both legs and one of his arms. (Strada feels terrible about this “though it’s incredible to see Giles now, how it’s just made him even more determined”.)

“I knew that the first story I did afterwards would get a lot of attention,” he said. “And, for that reason, I knew I wanted it to be about Emergency.” It’s only because of Duley’s urging that Strada has stepped out of the shadows, appearing at two events in London last week.

And there’s no doubt that Strada’s work deserves to be better known. In Afghanistan alone, it operates four hospitals and 34 clinics. It has opened three during the past month. Strada says that the Red Cross has pulled 95% of its personnel out of Afghanistan “now the war is over” and Nato forces have built not one civilian hospital. “And the war is not over! The fighting is getting closer and closer to Kabul.” The casualty figures were up last month, he says, by 40%. We went to war in Afghanistan. Our government did so on behalf of us the people. And it’s been left to a small Italian NGO to mop up our dirty work.

“It’s absolutely criminal… I mean, you know Nato forces, they have their own back-up system. Their own medical facilities. And for the population there is nothing left. And even more than that, the Afghan government has to record the cost of the services international aid organisations provide, so it’s going to pay in the end. Very few can afford treatment, and for all the others there’s nothing. Therefore, if you’re injured or you’re sick, you just die, period.”

Opening and running one of his hospitals for three years costs €3m (£2.5m – “or the cost of three western soldiers for a year”). Drones – the victims of which they’re seeing in increasing numbers, at least 40% of them children – are just another obscenity. “Particularly if you think that thousands of miles away someone is putting down a killing list. The Nobel peace prize is signing a killing list every week.”

What do you mean?

“I mean, President Obama. He’s personally signing a killing list. They have squads of assassins, professional assassins, who kill people. Is this the idea of justice of the new millennium, that someone gets killed because someone else decided this one deserves to be killed without a trial, without pause, without nothing? Just crazy, crazy. It’s another human way to wage war. It’s not a human one, but this one is particularly nasty and particularly cruel.”

But then Strada believes that war should be abolished. Abolished?

“It has to disappear from human history,” he says. “Same as slavery had to disappear from the human history… and today the concept of slavery is disturbing.”War should disturb us equally, he says. It makes absolutely no sense. “It’s very peculiar to the human race and it’s crazy because what you are destroying is humanity… When you operate on children and teenagers, you ask yourself what the hell do they have to do with war? I mean, these people, they don’t even know why a war is fought around them, and they don’t even know who’s fighting whom.”

He reserves his harshest judgment for “humanitarian wars”. “Whoever speaks about humanitarian war should be eligible for a long stay in a psychiatric institution. It’s complete nonsense. No matter what people say or think, the end result is that 90% of victims are civilians.”

Emergency programs
Emergency programs

There are few people who can talk with the moral authority of Strada. He has earned the right to be listened to. Few people have seen the things that he has. Far fewer have done anything about it. He challenges you to think differently about things you thought you knew about (the inevitability of war, the inequality of suffering) and simply refuses to accept the status quo.

Duley is right. The world-weariness is a front. And there are signs that the world is starting to notice a little. A documentary short about the Salam centre, Open Heart, was nominated for an Oscar this year and Strada found himself flying from Afghanistan to the Academy Awards. But, given the scale and scope of his work, it seems ludicrous that he’s not better known.

He travels continuously. He rents a house in Venice but is there for only a few weeks of the year, for only a few days at a time. He’s had open-heart surgery himself: a quadruple bypass after a heart attack he suffered while under fire from Saddam’s forces in Iraqi Kurdistan a number of years ago. And in 2009, his wife, Teresa, with whom he co-founded Emergency, died.

Has it been difficult continuing alone? “It has, although it might sound strange, but it gave a bit more strength because we didn’t want to waste everything that Teresa had given. She developed Emergency in Italy, and we now have 4,000 volunteers there, and these people decided to support Emergency’s work because of Teresa.”

His daughter, Cecilia, now continues her work, and Strada is back on the road. Don’t you ever think sometimes you should be at home in Venice tending your roses? “It’s a nice idea” – he says – “but I’m a surgical animal. I like to be in the operating room.” The roses will wait.

What did we learn?

Hearing a statement such as “war should be abolished” you might be tempted to dismiss Gino Strada as one among many idealists. But when the others go away and the noise of battlefield no longer resonates in your TV, he stays. He is to be found always in the same place, the operating room, fixing human bodies, living by his beliefs and helping others, most of the time in silence. It might not be possible to build a better world, but he is fighting hard every day not to make it too worse. Respect.

What else?

If you want to learn why Gino Strada launched an Emergency program in Cambodia, read Smile Cambodia on this blog.

Here you can learn more about Emergency and maybe help them.

Afghanistan, when the others go away is a short movie about one of Gino Strada ideas: bring medicine students to Afghanistan to complete their studies in a war hospital. The movie is captivating, but it contains disturbing images. Also, it is in Italian.

Another interesting article on Emergency in Afghanistan appeared in New York Times Magazine online version on 18th of May 2012. Read with care, content is unsettling.