By Ronal Quiñones
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.
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.