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SPORTS-CUBA: Going for Gold – Once Again

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Aug 7 2008 (IPS) - Cuba’s prestige among the global sports élite for the past three decades testifies to the effectiveness of a mass, free physical education system which the government has supported through the ups and downs of the national economy.

This Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people has led Latin America and the Caribbean since the 1970s at the Olympic, Pan-American and Central American Games, distinguishing itself ahead of countries with much larger populations and higher levels of economic development, as well as sending thousands of instructors on cooperation missions to contribute to the progress of sports in dozens of countries.

“In Cuba, anyone can become an athlete, whether he or she is born in Havana or in the most remote village in Guantánamo,” Ángel Gutiérrez, a retired physical education teacher who taught at primary schools for over 20 years, told IPS.

In fact, none of the present Cuban record holders started their athletics careers in Havana. Dayron Robles, the 110-metre hurdles champion, is from the country’s easternmost province of Guantánamo, while javelin thrower Osleydis Menéndez and high jumper Javier Sotomayor were born in Matanzas, more than 100 kilometres east of the Cuban capital.

This socialist country has a well-organised talent spotting and training system that begins with the Sports Initiation Schools (EIDE), which send promising athletes to the annual National School Games, the first competitive event for most of the members of Cuba’s Olympic teams.

The aspiring athletes later attend the Higher Schools for Athletic Improvement (ESPA) and finally the National High Performance Centres, where teams are trained for international competitions.

But the thousands of sports facilities are not exempt from the effects of the country’s economic crisis and shortcomings in management by the sports authorities, aggravated by the impact of the decades-old U.S. embargo which hinders purchases of sports equipment.

The boxing training centre, located on the outskirts of Havana, was partially closed two years ago because of appalling conditions in the training area and dormitories. Meanwhile, swimming is being held back because of the dire state of swimming pools on the island.

Physical education is an obligatory subject at all levels of education. It is taught by about 40,000 teachers trained since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when phys ed teachers numbered less than 1,000.

Figures from the National Statistics Office (ONE) indicate that close to 4.4 million people regularly practiced sports in Cuba in 2007, although only 163,396 of them did so at a high performance level.

Mass physical education is one of the government’s oldest policies, reflected in its creation of the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) in 1961, on the principle that “sports are the people’s right.”

This approach bore fruit at the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1970, in Panama, where Cuba won by far the most medals. A year later it took second place behind the United States in the Pan-American Games held in Cali, Colombia, a position it has held ever since.

Cuba hosted the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1982, and the Pan-American Games in 1991, an occasion on which, for the first and only time, it won more gold medals than the United States.

As for the Olympic Games, Cuba holds more gold medals than the rest of the countries of Latin American and the Caribbean combined, and up to the Athens Olympics in 2004 it was ranked 14th in the world. It began to stand out as an Olympic leader in the region in 1972 in Munich, where it took three gold medals in boxing.

The Cuban delegation to the Beijing games is made up of 165 athletes, most of them without previous Olympic experience. Their goal is to be ranked among the first 15 countries, and to maintain their supremacy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, Cuba’s performance at several competitions within the last five years has been declining.

At the Pan-American Games in Santo Domingo in 2003, the island captured 72 gold medals, while last year in Rio de Janeiro it took only 59, seven more than Brazil. In 2006, at the Central American Games in the Colombian city of Cartagena, it won only 31 medals more than Mexico, the runner-up, whereas on the previous occasion Cuba was 130 medals ahead of Mexico.

One of the causes of this decline might be the continual emigration of athletes who abandon their national teams or sports cooperation missions – one of the pillars of Cuban foreign policy – in many Latin American countries and elsewhere.

Defections by athletes, who are then regarded as “traitors” by the authorities, have hurt sports like boxing, baseball, volleyball, basketball and football.

Football alone lost seven players in the pre-Olympic tournament held in Tampa, Florida in the United States, and the volleyball squad had to be renewed twice, for similar reasons.

In only two years the Cuban boxing team, formerly invincible in international competitions, saw four of its best members, Olympic and world champions, leave the team for professional boxing, banned in 1962 by former President Fidel Castro.

“Cuban sports policy creates the conditions for excellent training and development, but sometimes it can be a barrier by not allowing sports practitioners to join professional leagues, or by regarding athletes who decide to turn professional abroad as unpatriotic traitors who are not allowed to compete for this country,” a sports commentator who requested anonymity told IPS.

Fidel Castro, who called on the Cuban delegation to “come back with their shield or on it,” as in classical Sparta, wrote in one of his regular Reflections newspaper columns that “we should never allow the traitors to visit the country showing off the luxury obtained through infamy.”

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