Cuban Sports Pride Wounded in Toronto

By Ronal Quiñones

Cuba’s athletes were welcomed home by Jose Ramon Fernandez, 91, who head’s the island’s Olympic Committee. Photo: Anabel Díaz/

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s fourth place at the recently concluded Pan-American Games was as unexpected as it was painful. With 36 gold medals, 20 less than planned, Cuba walked away with the slimmest gold harvest since 1971, when the incredible story of how the island became the United States’ runner-up at these tournaments began to be written in Cali, Colombia.

The economic might of countries like Canada, Mexico, Brazil or Argentina was nothing compared to Cuba’s comprehensive sports development program that, with support of the former socialist bloc, made a giant leap forward and made the small Caribbean country a sports authority.

The times have changed, however, and the socialist bloc no longer exists. What’s more, the rise of left-wing parties in Latin America which have tried to copy Cuba’s sports model (relying on the aid of Cuban technicians, in some cases) is yielding ever juicier fruits. Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador all show evident, comprehensive progress, not the traditional success with certain athletes.

By contrast, Cuba complains more and more about the stigma of desertions, the lack of resources needed to purchase the most modern sports equipment, lack of proper training for international tournaments and even tactical issues in some disciplines, where improving the skills of experts has not been a priority.

Some of these opinions are expressed by different sports aficionados around Havana.

The Elegant one.

Jesus, also known as El Elegante (“The Elegant One”), approached us with his peculiar walk and straw hat, emphasizing his Santiago de Cuba accent, impossible to conceal even after 20 years in Havana.

“It was a disgrace. I think all the sports failed. At least the most important ones, like the boxing, athletics, wrestling and Judo teams, did. We had a few pleasant surprises, as in gymnastics and diving. Without them, we wouldn’t even have made fourth place. It’s true the judges were vicious with us in boxing, but, in wresting and Judo, I saw some fights we could have won with the right tactic.”

“It’s true,” Florencia agrees. “When they had the lead, they let the opponent tie and then they were beaten, and, when they were losing, they weren’t able to get the lead again. The only ones who performed well were the Taekwondo fighters, who really gave their all till the end, which is why they won.”

Yoan, who was passing by carrying a daypack, on his way to catch a bus, gave us his impressions: “The thing is that, for a very long time, Cuba did what no one else did, invest government money in sports, since it was a way of showcasing what socialism was doing in the field of sports and leaving people dumbstruck.”

“Now, all other countries are doing what Cuba did, but the island isn’t doing what they do, which is to send their athletes to developed countries to train. Until international contracts aren’t commonplace, we’re not going to improve, because athletes will continue to leave the country on their own, and those that stay put will not get better just by competing among themselves. The other countries took the best of the socialist model and combined it with the capitalist model. That’s what they’re afraid of doing here, and, until they do, we’ll continue to suffer, because we got used to being at the top.”

“The whole of the Cuban press is triumphalist,” Luis Mario interjects. “They bombarded us with numbers, saying 55 gold medals and such. In the end, even Colombia almost got ahead of us. You can’t underestimate your rivals so much. Canada, one of the seven most industrialized countries in the world, how could we even think we’re better than them? Sports are not a priority for them, as it is in Cuba. But, there’s the proof: when they set their minds to it, they beat us in their sleep, just like Brazil did.”

“How could you expect a country with so many millions of inhabitants not to have the resources to put out good athletes? They’re already winning medals in nearly all sports, even in weight lifting, and I’d never heard about Brazilian weight-lifters before.”


“We can’t fool ourselves,” Yuri says. “That’s the place more or less reserved for Cuba. A tiny, underdeveloped island with 11 million inhabitants, how is it going to compete on a par with these monsters? This is just the beginning, they’ve already gave us signs at Beijing and at the Pan-American and Central American Games, where we had to kill ourselves to reach our goals. That’s what’s in store for us from now on.”

“I don’t agree,” Tony says. “What we need to do is let people play where they want to, so that they’ll learn and solve their financial problems at the same time.”

He added: “You go to any sporting facility here and you run into problems. Kids don’t have the equipment they need, and that’s where all of the problems start. The same athletes hired abroad can contribute part of their earnings to the development of sports. The ones who’ve stayed abroad could also do this. From what I’ve been told, El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) and Jose Ariel Contreras wanted to open baseball academies and they weren’t given authorization. I’m sure they were going to have balls, bats and gloves for everyone there. As long as we continue to have a closed mind, we’ll continue to move backwards.”

Clearly, what happened in Toronto can be viewed from many different angles. The event is far more than a competition and points to Cuba’s sports movement as a whole. The National Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute (INDER) will surely analyze what happened in each of the disciplines and with the different athletes in depth, but, as the fans say, we are dealing with a deeper phenomenon and we’ll have to take a closer look at how the training of athletes and their technical and tactical preparation failed.

9 thoughts on “Cuban Sports Pride Wounded in Toronto

  • Teofilo Stevenson was, at least publicly, an avid supporter of the regime. I know this because his daughter and my wife are good friends. And no, the amateur Cassius Clay was dirt poor and absolutely without corporate sponsors. Cuban athletes continue to walk a fine line regarding government support. Only because that government is Cuba and poor are the athletes given a free pass. If it were the other way around and US athletes were subsidized in the same way by the US government, there would such an outcry. … by the way, I don’t blame the Cuban athlete. It is the propaganda-seeking Castros who are to blame for tainting their athletes amateur status.

  • Just imagine – no, you don’t have to – a 91 year old Head of a National Olympic Committee. Makes the FIFA President a mere stripling. Where was Diaz-Canel on this occasion?

  • There is a marked difference Moses between “appearances” and winning three gold medals in three Olympic Games. Don’t tell me that Cassius Clay as an amateur was unsupported by commercial interests. Tefilo certainly was not a cats paw of the Castro regime in his political views. Yes, he rejected the various US offers to turn pro including one to be paid $1 million (an enormous sum at that time) to have one fight in the US.
    I made a factual statement and stand by it. I fail to see it as “either unfair or just stupid”.
    You can regard all Cuban athletes as “bought and paid for by the Castro dictatorship”. What would you have them do?
    I know personally, one who ran the 400 metres for Cuba – not for the Castro dictatorship of which he is a savage critic, but for his country. Would you remove all national pride from the Cuban people?
    When I write “Viva Cuba”, does that make me a supporter of Cuba and its people, or an admirer of the Castro family regime? I had thought that both you and I draw a hard line between Cuba and Cubans and the Castro family regime with the Communist Party of Cuba.

  • Muhammad Ali turned professional after his participation in the 1960 Olympics. Stevenson, bought and paid for by the Castro dictatorship, was arguably already a pro athlete. It is either unfair or just stupid to compare the two great fighters based solely on Olympic appearances.

  • The USOC provides training clothes, shoes, and implements. No US Olympic athlete lives in a house or wears street clothes paid for by the government. No athlete eats regular food paid for by the government. Corporate sponsors provide real jobs. Home Depot is such a sponsor. While the athlete may know diddly about plumbing supplies, they still have to spend the 4 hours a day in-store. The fairness of socialists countries sustaining their international athletes has long been a point of contention in international competitions.

  • I had the pleasure of seeing the Canada vs Cuba mens baseball game in Ajax, Ontario. The Cubans played well, their infield was especially tight. But the pitcher made two small mistakes & the Canadians capitalized on it.

    Most of the players on the Canadian team have MLB contracts but play at the minor league level. No major league players were allowed to play in this competition. As such, the teams represented the 2nd or 3rd tier of players in North America, Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico.

    The Cubans fielded many of their best players from the Cuban national league, obviously without the presence of the Cubans in the MLB. Neither the MLB nor the Cuban government will allow the likes of Puig, Abreu or Cespedes to play for Cuba in international competitions. That’s unfortunate and a loss for the sport. It will be a great day when the best Cuban players from the MLB are free to play for the Cuban national team in the PanAm Games, the World Baseball Classic, and the Olympics.

  • The US provides Sports scholarships for athletes and many companies give them pseudo jobs amounting to little more than displaying a company logo on their car.

  • During my visits to Cuba in 2008 just after the Bejing Olympics, I frequently had to explain to my Cuban friends how American athletes have to work and find time to train when they are not working. They were surprised to learn that it is the rare US Olympic athlete that can train full time and not have to work at least part-time on the side. In Cuba, international athletes train full time supported by the government with housing, food and living expenses. An Olympic wrestler or boxer , fir example, lives far better than other government workers. Given the government support that the Castros provide their athletes, it is no surprise that Cuba has fared so well internationally. The declining outcomes are surprising except when it is taken into consideration, as Quiñones states, that other countries are following the model of the former Soviet bloc and paying their best athletes to train.

  • Cubans can be proud of their sporting history in world terms! Names like Tefilo Robinson, and Janver Sotomayer will remain in the World’s sporting history for all times.
    I mention those two specifically, because they were not loyal “Socialismo” supporters, but loyal Cubans to the very core! They represented Cuba and the people of Cuba, not the Castro family regime and the Communist Party of Cuba.
    It was sad but understandable to see that Sotomayer has become a Spanish citizen, but always remember he set that world record as a Cuban!
    I had the great pleasure of meeting Tefilo in Cuba – a gentleman, but one who won those three Olympic gold medals whereas Cassius Clay (later Muhamed Ali) won one. Sadly he is no longer with us, but his achievements remain.
    To the outside world, the question when Cuba is competing in international events is: “How many will defect.” and invariably many do.
    The Castro family regime’s political motivation no longer benefits from Cuba’s participation in international sporting events, but the Cuban competitors are always welcomed.
    Viva Cuba!

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