Jorge Sandoval has been many things in his time. From cabinet maker to international cycling promoter, his story is one of heartbreak, triumph and unwavering determination.
From an early age Jorge developed a love of cycling as the Tour of Chile rode through his home town of Tome, a small city by the sea. Jorge would follow the riders and listen to their languages as he dreamt of riding amongst them. Although his family was very poor and his country was in political upheaval, he describes his childhood as a time of “happiness and beauty”.
His childhood was to be cut short when he was denounced as a traitor for crimes against the dictator Augusto Pinochet at age 19. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp where he was tortured and bore witness to the murders of a number of his fellow prisoners. Unbeknown to the military, one of the camp guards was Jorge’s own brother, and both had to remain silent to ensure the other’s survival.
After a year of imprisonment he was released to his family, and as he left the camp he smuggled out a small wooden sign a fellow prisoner had made, to remember his ordeal by. Fearing for his life, Jorge decided to escape illegally to Argentina with his pregnant fiancée. After a short time in Argentina, the pair chose to immigrate to New Zealand, and on 26th November 1976 they landed in Wellington.
There wasn’t a day I didn’t think about my family, or my country.
After just four days Jorge was put to work in a factory for 12 hours a day, without knowing a word of English. He says the language gap caused workers to treat him with extreme prejudice: “because you can’t speak the language, they think you’re a dumb ass, they think you’re ignorant”. Jorge describes these years as the toughest: “there wasn’t a day I didn’t think about my family, or my country”.
Jorge found support for refugees at the time “non-existent”, and simple tasks like finding sugar in the supermarket would take Jorge hours. Jorge and his friends had to resort to tasting things in the aisles, and one of his friends mistakenly fed his family dog food, as he thought it was cheap ham.
It was only when Jorge joined a Wellington cycling club that he began to meet new people and learn the English language. “I had to adapt to New Zealand because New Zealand never adapted to me,” he says. Jorge proved to have a talent for the sport and within a couple of years he was selected to join the New Zealand cycling team, and began touring around the world.
In 1988 the team was to ride the Tour of Chile, providing Jorge with the chance to return to his home town and fulfil his childhood dream. When Jorge arrived, armed guards met him at the terminal and took him for questioning. He had no idea if they knew who he was or if they would imprison him again, but he was able to lie and enter undetected. He describes the ride through his town as one of the proudest moments of his life.
But Jorge’s influence off the road was to be his greatest contribution to the sport, and in 1988 Jorge launched the first Tour of Wellington. Before this, Wellington had had no tours or significant cycling events, prompting vigorous complaints from Jorge.
“One day they got so sick of me that they said, ‘You know what Jorge? You are so smart, why don’t you do it?’. So I did.” A quarter of a century later, it’s now the biggest international cycling event in the country, attracting riders from all over the world.
One day they got so sick of me that they said, ‘You know what Jorge? You are so smart, why don’t you do it?’. So I did.
His contribution to the sport became clear when he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in 2006, for both the men’s and women’s professional cycling tours. When he returned to Chile with the medal he was named as an honorary citizen, by the very man who had denounced him as a criminal all those years ago.
In 2011 the tour was renamed the New Zealand Cycle Classic and moved to Palmerston North, as Jorge considered Manawatu “the perfect cycle destination” with its smooth roads and stunning hill climbs. Jorge thinks cycling in the area is improving, but it pales in comparison with other countries where it is “second only to religion”.
However, Jorge describes a darker side to cycling in New Zealand, as drivers’ attitudes to cyclists are very poor. “I’ve never allowed my children on the road, because of what I have seen.” To improve the sport, Jorge feels drivers and cyclists need to try to understand each other better and share the road.
When Jorge had saved up enough money, he was able to bring both of his brothers to New Zealand to work. His brothers’ plight highlights the employment problems in Chile, as both brothers were out of work despite being accountancy and teaching professionals. The two brothers now own their own businesses and all three visit Chile once a year, as well as sending money every month to other family members.
Jorge feels that the country is beautiful, the schools and hospitals are excellent, and that life in New Zealand is full of possibilities. “A lot of immigrants come here and they are capable of a lot more, but you’ve got to work hard, don’t take no for an answer,” says Jorge.
“This country has done a lot for me, a lot. I’m not going to be here forever, but I hope that when I’m gone, people remember that this Chilean refugee came to this country and his legacy is here.”