While it may be an exaggeration to say they were overshadowed, Argentine preparations for the 2012 London Olympics were undoubtedly marked by the on-going tension between governments regarding the ever-controversial topic of the Falklands/ Malvinas question.
The world of sport was somewhat farcically placed in the middle of the conflict when a video showing Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg running up and down the island capital Stanley. British outrage then turned to parody when the former men’s hockey captain was not included in the squad that travelled to London; he may have trained on ‘Argentine soil’, as the government-sponsored video stated, but the 34-year-old was forced to watch his team-mates on television when they took the field, this time without a doubt in Britain.
In Enriqueta Duarte’s eyes, however, there is nothing new in the latest round of verbal sparring and media wars currently taking up the headlines. One of the survivors from the previous London games in 1948, just like Luciana Aymar, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Argentina contingent 64 years later, had to contend with a fair amount of hostility when landing in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Second World War.
“Like always, Argentina was in a bad place politically with Great Britain,” the former Olympic swimmer and icon of national sport explained, sitting down to share her experiences of the last time London hosted the illustrious sporting event.
“For a start, Argentina had just bought the railway network at a price that was not particularly pleasing to the English; and [then-president Juan Domingo] Perón did not like it either. We would not sell them beef, and just imagine the need in those days with rationing still imposed. The Argentines were put right at the bottom, first because we were South Americans and then because we were Argentines,” she recalls, remembering how certain days the swimming pool would be mysteriously unavailable for the contingent that had arrived from Buenos Aires.
Enriqueta was just 19 when she travelled halfway across the world to represent her nation in the 100 and 400m freestyle swimming events, as well as taking part in the 4x100m relay. Now 83 and living in a modest yet immaculate apartment in the shadows of the plush Puerto Madero port development, the Olympian lights up when it comes to talking about an incredible life in and outside of sport.
The phone never seems to stop ringing in Enriqueta’s living room, which gives the perfect opportunity to look at some of the memories she has accrued over the years. Photographs of former sporting colleagues and friends made across the world take pride of place; most notably from England, where she completed one of her most treasured achievements (which will be elaborated on later), and went on to visit many times down the years. Pride of place is taken by a medal from the Argentine senate, bestowed in 2011 by then vice-president of the nation Julio Cobos in honour of 60 years of impeccable service to Argentina in the world of sport. As Enriqueta explains, however, her entry into swimming was rather more mundane than her subsequent achievements would suggest.
“When I was a young girl I never wanted to eat, and my mother was a secretary for an institute of tuberculosis, which was prevalent at the time. My knees and legs were always hurting, which people said was due to growing pains, but the worry was always there that I may have contracted tuberculosis,” she explains.
“So me and my brother were taken to a doctor, who examined us and said ‘These are the two scrawniest kids I have ever seen! They need to go right now and start doing sport in a club or gymnasium.’ That’s where it all started, I was nine and I started to learn swimming in public classes where they taught me an excellent breaststroke.”
A decent showing in the South American championships of 1946 – something Enriqueta remembers with a laugh thanks to new president Juan Domingo Perón’s congratulations sent to the deeply conservative figures who ran Argentine swimming – paved the way for competing in the Olympics, in which the teenage Enriqueta performed well albeit with little prospect of a medal. Given the tortuous journey to London though, the big surprise is that any of Argentina’s participants were in a fit state to succeed.
“Very badly organised, the directors were an embarrassment,” she recalls when looking back at a boat journey across the Atlantic, which spanned weeks.
“The trip was horrible; there was no way even to train! It was a passenger ship, divided into first, second and third class cabins. They shared out the rooms between the sportsmen according to their economic status, their intellectual capabilities and according to the sport.
“In first were all the women, the military representatives and the directors, as well as the fencers. Those in second could not go into first, those in third could not go to either first nor second. They all hated us! The food was all rice and pasta. One boxer gained too much weight and could not enter his category, so they sent him straight back.”
Of all the country’s representatives in 1948, perhaps the most gripping story was that of Delfo Cabrera, who miraculously took the gold in the marathon. Enriqueta lights up as she describes cheering on the runner past the finish line.
“I was there the day of the marathon, which was wonderful and which I remember absolutely from memory. My father was a great friend of Delfo Cabrera and was the first person to jump up and congratulate him; he even put him in a bear hug. The athlete said: ‘Don’t touch me because I am hurting all over!’ So they hoisted him onto their shoulders. The Argentines shouted, we cried, we sang the national anthem, so much emotion in one moment it was unbelievable.”
An ear infection put a premature end to Duarte’s competitive swimming career, and she dedicated herself to fencing as well as studying for a law degree in her native Buenos Aires. Just three years after the Olympics, however, another engagement on British soil called. British newspaper The Daily Mail organised a competition to cross the English Channel for swimmers, and Enriqueta won one of just eight spots out of some 1,500 applicants. Thanks to an illustrious benefactor our law student found herself becoming the first Latina to make the iconic crossing.
Enriqueta beat out compatriot Alberto Abertondo to reach the south coast in just 13 hours and 26 minutes; and she owes her achievement to none other than the second wife of President Perón, the unique Evita.
“I remember one day we were with Evita for another function, with all the female Olympians: we lined up to take a photo and I was in the second row just behind Evita. A friend said to me, ‘Move Enriqueta or you won’t be in the photo’.
“With that Evita turns round and says to me: ‘What are you doing here Enriqueta? You should be training to cross the Channel!’ I told her ‘Señora, it looks like we won’t be going because we don’t have the money.’ She nearly had a heart attack,” she laughs.
“She turned straight around and said ‘Right, an audience tomorrow for Enriqueta.’ Not Enriqueta Duarte or Miss Duarte, just Enriqueta. From there we were sent to the Supreme Court; but it was already settled, an order from the president’s wife. The tickets and the passports were already in our name.”
Few people receive such glowing praise as the symbol of Argentine women and workers’ rights, famously immortalised by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna for an English-speaking audience in the 1990s. Enriqueta’s apartment is adorned by photos and portraits of the stateswoman and she makes one thing clear: more than a Peronist, she was and still is first and foremost an ‘Evista’.
That political activism, allied to problems during her marriage, led to Enriqueta going into an exile of more than 30 years in Venezuela from 1976, and she still spends a lot of time in the South American country where her daughter lives and works as a diplomat. Her days in Buenos Aires are filled with functions designed to promote the sport of swimming in Argentina as well as preserving the memories of her most incredible achievements. When questioned on what she considers her greatest feat, there is no hesitation in naming the crossing of Lago Nahuel Huapi near Bariloche and in the shadow of the Andes mountain range as the pinnacle of her swimming career.
Enriqueta also occupies her days working on a book of her incredible life; one that, as she mentions repeatedly, she would love to see published in English to allow a wider audience to share in her story. And while her story will most likely never rank alongside that of Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz and Steve Redgrave in the Olympic pantheon, her experience in London almost 70 years ago prepared her for a truly remarkable life as an example of sporting achievement in both her home nation and Britain.