Out of thin air | Where llamas and footballers prosper, FIFA fears to tread

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At 68.1º longitude and 16.5º latitude, Estádio Hernando Siles de la Ciudad de La Paz sits approximately 3,636m (11,929 ft.) above sea level.

Yo nací­ entre las montaí±as.

Mi pueblo en Suiza está frente a los cerros más altos de Europa.

Por eso la altura no me da miedo.

I was born in the mountains.

My hometown in Switzerland sits across from the highest mountains in Europe.

For that reason, I am not afraid of the altitude.

Joseph Blatter, FIFA president, 11 February 2000

La Paz, Bolivia | The above inscription, situated on exterior walls at Estádio Hernando Siles de la Ciudad de La Paz, obviously reflects a different period in the FIFA boss’s thinking on high-altitude football.

On May 27, FIFA’s executive committee announced the ban on competitive international matches 2,500m above sea level. Typically, the stroke came with little explanation, medical or otherwise. FIFA’s official account of the meeting—held in advance of the 57th FIFA Congress, at which the world governing body announced its new slogan, “For the Game. For the World.â„¢”—sandwiches the judgment between news of a benefit match for Nelson Mandela and praise for its “Win in Africa with Africa” initiative (“Focus on 57th FIFA Congress,” May 27).

La Razón of La Paz, one of the newspapers organizing the “Bolivia Unida y Con Altura” signature protest, went above the fold with the FIFA story on May 28.

In their attempt to raise 1 million signatures in opposition to the FIFA decision, Bolivian media organizations remind Blatter of his earlier remarks “at a time when there was constant debate regarding matches at high altitude” (Eduardo Avila, “A Country Unites behind FIFA Ban on Stadiums at High Altitudes,” Global Voices, May 31). In the final salvo of a 10-point manifesto, the ad hoc “Bolivia Unida y Con Altura” movement quotes the FIFA boss, having made clear the FIFA principles being overturned by the arbitrary decision—that football forms part of “universal culture,” uniting people as sisters and brothers, whatever their altitudinal relationship to the prevailing seascape.

“Bolivians are a poor people, we play football with humility, but we are dignified and we have a national character such that we will defend our rights when we are not at fault,” states the manifesto in its peroration. The letter may be signed online. (An independent weblog, “Futbol de altura,” has launched to follow breaking news and to link to videos of historic Bolivian matches.)

FIFA did not present details of its scientific findings or a list of sources consulted, forcing the conclusion that reasons for the high-altitude ban are political rather than substantive. If desired, the organizing body could call on the medical assessment and research center under its auspices. The center, for example, was recently charged with producing a pan-ethnic study on testosterone levels. Or, FIFA decision-makers could have popped into the meditation center at its freshly unveiled $196 million Zurich headquarters to think more clearly about what they were doing. The facility, fronted in glass, will “allow light to shine through the building and create the transparency we all stand for,” said Blatter, without irony.

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