HAVANA TIMES — It felt as though Cuba was aiming to secure a first place at the Olympic Games or a seat in the UN Security Council – but they were merely the 2014 Veracruz Central American and Caribbean Games.
The tension felt during the competition could be felt both on the island and the host country, where people did not cease to crunch numbers to calculate when Cuba would take over the lead with respect to Mexico.
Months before, top officials at the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) had spent days doing the math to predict what could happen at this regional competition. Things happened more or less as planned, but, despite this, the anxiety was evident everywhere.
Every day, Cuba’s State television “reported” on the gold medals the two countries secured, favoring this or that athlete, and showing marked preoccupation over the possibility that something may not go as planned.
Cuba’s sport officials were constantly at all competition venues and did not have much contact with the local and international press until the last days of the games, when their presence at the award ceremonies also became evident.
Those who have dealt with these kinds of environments know how stuffy the air tends to get there, but no one knows how tense things could get if Cuba were unable to come out victorious at the games, where it has stayed at the top throughout history.
The closest experience I can recall were the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the worst for Cuban sports since 1964. The first gold medal was secured in the Chinese capital on the 14th by wrestler Mijain Lopez (after six days of competition). The much less anticipated gold medal day won by short-distance hurdler Dayron Robles came on the 21st, three days before the end of the games. Throughout, people in the Cuban camp were on edge, no one was in a good mood and the athletes and trainers were less open with the public and press.
Unlike in Beijing, the desertion of Cuban athletes added to tensions in Veracruz and was a tougher blow for the country than the medals it failed to win. Cuban teams had begun to dwindle since before the opening and desertions increased as the days passed, prompting authorities to step up security measures.
I don’t know whether there is any way to stop someone who is set on leaving their delegation and find themselves in a country where their language is spoken, in an unguarded hotel in the downtown area, but those who choose to restrict the movement of these athletes seem to believe such measures are effective.
What I do know is that it is difficult to give one’s best out in the field under such conditions, which is why Cuban athletes are all the more worthy of respect, as they are able to defeat others whose sole worry is to do well in an event. They aren’t thinking, like many of the Cubans, to find the cheapest place to buy things at, distribute their luggage weight allotment or find someone willing to buy something they brought from Cuba and thus contribute to their pocket money).
This holds for the Cuban press, which, in addition to the above, has to go from one venue to the other in order to cover several sports at once, and also find a cheap place to eat. The immense majority of journalists from other countries report on the sport assigned to them and nothing else.
Getting back to the games, Cuba came out as the top medal winner following a massive turn around in athletics, boxing, rowing and wrestling, while Mexico closed with rather poor performances, unable to meet the initial and optimistic prediction that it would win more than 130 gold medals. That was always something of a pipe-dream, as they would never have been able to achieve that with Cuba as a rival.
What the People Are Saying
As usual, we made the trip down to the center of the Cuban capital – the La Pelota cafeteria in Vedado, this time around – to gather impression from sports enthusiasts.
We started with Lourdes, the first woman we came across after visiting these kinds of venues for several months. “I don’t know what the fuss is about. The Central American Games have always been easy. They tell us that other countries have better training, that Mexico changed the program or that other teams have Cuban coaches, but they don’t want to acknowledge the other side of the coin: Cuban sports have lost a lot in terms of quality. We had a hard time of winning now, and we also had a hard time coming in second place at the Pan-American Games. I can already picture the campaign in Toronto (2015), like the one in Winnipeg (1999).”
“You’ll see,” Aristides adds. “Back then, Canada played some dirty tricks, but it was hard nonetheless. We’ve been going downhill ever since.”
Eliecer prefers not to focus on others. “The most important thing is to train well. We know that most athletes compete once a year, some don’t even do that, like the water polo or hockey teams said. You can have all of the willpower in the world, but you have to compete with the best to learn. Look at how we did in soccer. Why? Because it’s almost the exact same team that played at the Under-20 World Cup. They were able to qualify here, but there they were pitted against the best, such as the French mid-fielder Paul Pogba. How is our water polo team expected to win when they don’t have a pool to train in half of the year?”
“Everyone knows that sports are expensive,” Flavio interjects. “The times of the socialist bloc, when athletes spent half the year competing over there and training in sports we weren’t good at, are over. If you want to get better today you have to pay for a good trainer, pay for air tickets, hotels, etc.”
“Listen,” Delfin says to put an end to the discussion,” you best get ready for what’s coming, because we’re going to have a real tough time at the Pan-American Games, and we’ll be seeing journalists on the Cuban TV Round Table program doing the math every day. Let’s just see how we do then.”