By Ronal Quiñones
Photos: Juan Suarez
HAVANA TIMES — It’s a scorching hot day in Havana. One need only go out for a stroll to work up a good sweat. The sun makes its hot presence felt in the Cuban capital, where, despite this, many people continue to practice sports.
The stage is set with the current holding of the Pan-American Games, but, no matter what time of the year it is, sporting centers and fields continue to fill up with people on weekday mornings, eager to take part in tournaments between different workplaces and between children’s teams.
The weather calls for a swim, but there are very few pools available across the island where people can practice the sport, which is why baseball, soccer, softball, athletics and basketball are the sports practiced my most at the Voluntary Sports Councils.
That said, there’s a fair number of people skating, playing volleyball or heading over to Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva sporting complex for a less athletic activity: enriching their sports-related collections. Yes, there are those who meet at the well-known sporting complex (mostly kids and teenagers) to exchange cards, stamps and even playing cards, in the coolness afforded by the shade.
Most of the activity, of course, is to be found out on the courts. A glimpse at these at 10 in the morning reveals that all of the fields are already occupied (some having been rented out in advance, such as the Juan Ealo baseball field or the Manuel Fajardo Sports University field). Most, however, are secured on a first come, first serve basis.
Jorge Hernandez, who works at a money exchange locale (CADECA), was tasked this week with getting to the sports complex early in the morning to reserve a softball field and guarantee that the Banking League (one of the many workplace tournaments organized in Havana) could be held there.
“All of us here are failed baseball players. We didn’t have the skills or luck to make it to the national series and we vent our frustrations here one way or another. The League was set up for recreation, but people started taking it more and more seriously and they now train so as not to make fools of themselves out on the field,” Jorge says.
That is more or less the attitude one finds in these type of competitions, which are funded by the players themselves (who pay for the field or transportation, if needed, the hiring of referees and the purchase of bats and balls).
Depending on the purchasing power of the workplaces, some teams have uniforms, but, generally speaking, everyone dresses as best they can. This is also true of the rest of the sporting utensils needed, such as gloves or catcher’s masks and pads, lent out to the rivals when needed.
In the case of children, many head over to the sports complex eager to join any neighborhood team. Some root for their own neighborhoods at provincial tournaments. The summer break is the ideal time to hold the National School Games and the best players join the selections from their respective provinces in the different disciplines.
Though these are “official” teams, these also depend in good measure from the contributions of parents, particularly in logistical terms, because they are given only the most basic resources.
One of the places that sees plenty of activity every day is the El Ponton complex in Centro Habana, where we gathered the opinions of several people. In addition to offering facilities for traditional sports, the venue has a frontenis court. It is also frequented by those seeking to tone their muscles, or give the pool and dive tank (empty from time immemorial) multiple, creative uses.
The place is also equipped with a Judo and Taekwondo mat. Many young people practice mixed martial arts in the roofed hallways of the venue and some even play musical instruments. There are also improvised soccer matches. There’s more activity during the day in the summer, but these people meet at the venue throughout the year, in the afternoons.
Rodney Crespo, father of Rodney, told us he had to take his kid out of the baseball field because it was far too much of a hassle. “The coach wanted him to go train every afternoon, after school, and I can’t bring him because I work. He’s an 8-year-old kid and I can’t send him off by himself, so I had to choose. Life’s tough and I had no other option. It pains me, because the kid’s got talent, that’s what they told me the first day, but it’ll have to be later on. Who knows?”
Angered, Rodney wants to understand his father, but, at the same time, is upset he had to quit baseball. “I played as catcher, and I also batted well,” said the kid, who has a good build for an 8-year-old.
Amelia, Alfredito’s mother, explained to us that “I would bring him, most of all, so that he could practice sports, and he likes it. Since I know he’s not going to be Cristiano Ronaldo or anything close to that, we bring him here whenever we can, but it’s not a set commitment, because the two of us are doctors and we don’t exactly live around the corner.”
The basketball court remain deserted for most of the day, but, as the sun starts to go down, at around 5 in the afternoon, the hoops see two 3×3 teams start a match and people line up to play after them. In this case, the players are adults (there are even some veterans among them) out to challenge time, even when their bodies tend to put them in check constantly.
“It’s the sport I’ve always liked. I’m not tall, but I am fast. I have very good aim. There’s a bunch of us here who meet almost every day, but you never get to play with the same teammates, because we can’t all be here at the same time every day. You come here, you “ask for war” (wait your turn) and go into the court with whoever’s here. It’s a contact sport, but I’ve never seen a single problem here. People argue, but the blood never runs and we go away as much friends as we were before. That’s what happens every day,” says Vargas, as they bluntly call this young man with organizational skills.
The basketball players and body builders are the last to leave every day, when night falls and you can no longer see the ball. That’s more or less how the days play out this sport-filled summer in Havana.
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