Humboldt Games

“Think of it as similar to the Olympics”

Every two years, a number of German schools in the Andean states embark on a mission to find the "campéon" of the Humboldt Games. Teams from as many as 14 educational institutions compete for medals in three disciplines. The 20th Juegos Humboldt were hosted by the German school "Federico Fröbel" in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.

When Alexander von Humboldt went ashore in Guayaquil in 1803, he found a small and vibrant town – a business hub on the Pacific coast, famous for its shipyards and the legions of merchants in the streets. Humboldt not only wrote his Geography of Plants there, but also filled page after journal page complaining about the ubiquitous, pestering mosquitoes.

At the time Guayaquil had a population of just 12,000; now the figure is more than three million. This port on the Pacific is Ecuador's biggest city.

The German school there is named after Humboldt and began a tradition in 1981 when it hosted the first Humboldt Games. One week of competitions between the German schools of the Andean states of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, and in the past also Chile, whose German schools now host their own competition, and Venezuela. Due to the political situation, the country has temporarily withdrawn from the competition.

Every two years, at different locations, 16-strong teams go head-to-head and compete for medals. Swimming, track and field, and volleyball are the three disciplines. The students prepare for months; the competitions are an absolute highlight of their school careers.

But why “Humboldt Games”? “Maybe it's just because of the name of the German school in Guayaquil,” muses Eberhard Heinzel, head of the German international school Deutsche Schule Lima – and recalls that Humboldt has often been described as a great networker.

Gold medals and an Olympic Flame

The Humboldt Games likewise network, connect and integrate. Over a period of almost 40 years now, they have become bigger, more professional, and, thanks to support from sponsors, more elaborate. “As many as 14 schools take part, and more would be welcome,” Heinzel says. And yet the atmosphere remains very personal and familiar, with the teams staying with local families rather than at hotels.

This doesn't compromise the competitive spirit. “Think of it as similar to the Olympics,” Heinzel explains. “We award gold medals – and even have an Olympic Flame.” When Lima's team parade past with flags flying, they are often among the favourites. Other teams are said to have had nightmares on their account. They have emerged from eight Humboldt Games as the undisputed champions.

This year, however, they had to admit defeat. The competition from Quito was too strong. The athletes from Ecuador's capital city scored 120 of a possible 120 points. A sweeping win across the board – “that's only happened twice,” Heinzel says with due admiration.

Dancing is the secret fourth discipline

The supporting programme also follows in the Olympian tradition with national customs. In addition to concerts and a lively opening ceremony, traditional music and dancing are an integral part of the Humboldt Games. “The students have to present typical dances from their countries,” Heinzel explains. Not only is the short cultural evening completely sold out every time; it can also be crucial in terms of the competition itself. Points are deducted for not taking part. The dance is the secret fourth discipline.

The 2019 Humboldt Games were held in Cochabamba in Bolivia. “On other occasions we've gone to megacities; this time it was a smaller city,” Heinzel says. And with a population of 630,000, Cochabamba is indeed much smaller than previous venues such as Lima, Bogotá, Santa Cruz, Quito and Medellin.

Alexander von Humboldt is not as present in the popular imagination in Cochabamba as he is in many other places in South America. But another explorer and scientist from Europe lived there: Thaddäus Haenke, who traversed the Atacama Desert, studied water lilies and copper mines, founded pharmacies and developed vaccines. He died in Cochabamba in 1816 under obscure circumstances. He had a reputation as the “Austrian Humboldt”.

On 26 May, this year's Humboldt Games in Cochabamba came to an end. The athletes are already getting ready for the next edition – in 2021 the competition is due to be held in Bogotá. After the Humboldt Year, another anniversary: 40 years of the Humboldt Games.


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