Cuba Sports in 2016: Recovery and Concern

By Ronal Quinones

Rio 2016 gold medal winner Arlen Lopez.
Rio 2016 gold medal winner Arlen Lopez.

HAVANA TIMES — The year 2016 revealed the slow recovery made in Cuban sports, but it also revealed the country’s growing concern about the unstoppable escape of national talent which continues to undermine the chance of creating stability within the world’s sports elite.

Compared to what happened at the last Olympic Games, Cuba’s recovery was due in large part to a greater opening in terms of financial issues, which allowed sports such as boxing, wrestling and athletics to maintain their main athletes during almost the whole four years.

In Rio de Janeiro-2016, Cuba didn’t beat its performance at London-2012, because even though they won five gold medals at both events, their rewards only allowed them to take 18th place, and not 16th, which they sealed in the United Kingdom’s capital, but overall, it wasn’t a bad performance either.

This result was mainly due to the gold medals won precisely in boxing, by Robeisy Ramirez (56 kilograms), Arlen Lopez (75) and Julio Cesar La Cruz (81), as well as the bronze medals won by Johannys Argilagos (49), Erislandy Savon (91) and Lazaro Alvarez (60), although there were higher expectations from the latter because of his triple world champion title.

The metal prizes won at the latest World Series of Boxing had a lot to do with maintaining these boxers’ motivation and interest to keep on representing Cuba at international events.

Something similar can be said about wrestling and athletics, as the former has begun to allow wrestlers to be contracted in German and Indian clubs, and the latter participated at the world’s main athletics tournaments, which has given economic returns to those who won first, second or third place.

Yarelis Barrios will lose her 2008 Beijing Olympic silver medal over doping.
Yarelis Barrios will lose her 2008 Beijing Olympic silver medal over doping.

Cuban authorities have publicly stated that this has been a good year for Cuban sports and has even spoken about sustainability, clearly thinking about these same contracts, but this has yet to be proved.

Nevertheless, the concerns that they have because of the loss of talent continues to be latent, and especially affects our national sport, baseball, which can’t compete with the salaries given to players in the Major Leagues.

As if that wasn’t enough, there is another phenomenon which has also come into play since halfway through this year, with the imprisonment of almost all of the starting players from the volleyball men’s team, for having been part of a sex scandal in Finland.

Volleyball was the only team sport which already had its passport to go to Rio (ultimately the only one who managed to get it) and with chances of playing really well, but this did away with the predictions once again, and has practically said goodbye to another good generation of sport in Cuba’s outstanding repertoire.

Furthermore, for the first time in nearly two decades, the Caribbean nation’s reputation was stained with new doping problems in an important competition. The first took place in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, when the high jumper Javier Sotomayor and three weightlifters were stripped of their medals for having used illegal drugs.

In spite of the government-backed fierce campaign which tried to prove these athletes’ innocence, improper handling of samples or violating anti-doping protocol, nobody was exempt from the punishment.

This time, Cuba appears on the list of countries that has doped up sportspeople after a reanalysis of frozen samples collected at the summer 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, namely the triple jumper Wilfredo Martinez and discus thrower Yarelis Barrios.

Martinez didn’t win a medal in that competition and doesn’t even compete for Cuba nowadays, but Barrios, a world medal winner on several occasions, was even about to attend Rio de Janeiro, which was a strong blow to the image of Cuban sports.

Of course, she denies having doped herself up, but the proof is irrevocable, and she will surely lose the silver she won at that competition.

Yulieski Gourriel in his Houston Astro uniform. Photo:
Yulieski Gourriel in his Houston Astro uniform. Photo:

With regard to baseball, the most famous case is that of brothers Yuliesky and Lourdes Gourriel, who abandoned the Cuban delegation in February during the Caribbean Baseball Series, in Puerto Rico, but there were many more who took this same path throughout the year.

Cuba’s main talents, such as fielders Jose Adolis Garcia, Lazaro Ramirez and Luis Robert Moiran, or pitchers Hector Mendoza and Yennier Cano, decided to leave the country in one way or another at different moments this year, and to top off the already long list of baseball players who have taken this path over the last few years.

The lucrative contracts which have recently be signed, such as that of Yuliesky himself worth 47.5 million USD for five years, are too great a temptation for young boys who can’t even dream of earning a tenth of this amount during their entire careers if they stay on the island.

Every Cuban federation is aware that they can’t compete on a financial level with the Major League Baseball and pray for the signing of an agreement which allows Cuban baseball players to play in the US without having to leave the island on a permanent basis, but this still hasn’t been put into practice.

The players’ patience is running out, knowing that youth isn’t eternal and that, the sooner they make a decision, the better their future will be in professional baseball.

Luckily for Cuba, the drain isn’t so great in the rest of sports, even though there are some cases.

The truth is that, beyond the results of great competitions, the main source of concern for Cuban authorities should be to try and to keep their existing talent, because this is the only way they can aspire for a small island with 12 million inhabitants to again be considered a world sporting power.