By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — Though many are the achievements of Cuban women in sports, their opportunities are far more reduced when compared to their colleagues of the opposite sex, particularly in the international arena.
At base level, programs for both genders are fairly similar, as are sporting calendars, but once we get up to the cadet, juvenile and major league levels, the differences become notable.
Not even in the golden age of Cuban sports did females take part in continental or worldwide tournaments for the above levels. When we look at the elites, with the exception of volleyball, judo, cycling and athletics, the difference in terms of international exposure is quite stark.
Female boxing isn’t even practiced in Cuba, women’s weight-lifting still isn’t bringing in any medals, not even in Central America, and female wrestling has had a highly irregular performance at world championships, unable to stabilize its results, even though this discipline is clearly favored over the others.
One could argue it all has to do with results. However, if one considers that no important tournament has been won by the men’s baseball team since 2007, that Cuban soccer does not even stand out in Central America and the Caribbean, and that these teams continue to participate in regional and international competitions, one must conclude that other criteria prevail when these kinds of decisions are made.
Chess, whose tournaments are by invitation and could therefore include more female players, is also no exception to this. In order for the organizers of prestigious championships to invite female Cuban chess players, these must first become renowned, something entirely impossible if they are not given the opportunity to participate in other tournaments.
Since the times of Maria Caridad Colon, Ana Fidelia Quirot and Mireya Luis, women have occupied a privileged place in Cuba’s sporting pantheon, paving the road for such luminaries as Idalis Ortiz and Yarisley Silva. The economic crisis, however, has had its toll, and, on many occasions, the rope breaks at the end of the so-called “weaker” sex.
This is a controversial issue, and Havana Times went out in search of the opinions of aficionados, athletes and experts to explore it in greater depth.
“The budget issue is key,” said an official from Cuba’s National Sports Institute (INDER) who preferred to remain anonymous. “Putting together the international calendars for Cuban athletes is a real headache. Everyone wants to travel and no one understands the country’s priorities. Athletics and chess are easier because the organizers almost always cover the costs. But things aren’t always as they should be and women are almost always the ones who lose out.”
“Wrestling, to mention one example, is one of the prioritized sports, because it earns Cuba medals at Olympic Games. This year, however, there won’t be any female wrestlers going to the World Championships and only seven men are going, for the two styles. If that’s a prioritized sport, just imagine what the rest are like. Aquatic sports, nearly all team sports, fencing, Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics and others, these teams only get to travel once a year, some not even that. You can’t move forward like that.”
“You have to be on the inside to see certain things,” Yaquelin, a judo practioner, says. “They almost never, or practically never take women to Pan-American or world youth tournaments, and one gets discouraged. There are a few more opportunities in judo, because Cuba has international prestige in the discipline and, sometimes, to set up training facilities in some countries, they put forth an invitation with all expenses paid. A pentathlon participant trains with me, and I can tell you she does it for love of the sport alone, because those people don’t even get to go out to the street.”
“There are differences between the genders,” Adrian, a sports enthusiast, said. “A female weightlifter in the pre-selection lives in my neighborhood and she hasn’t traveled anywhere, and she’s been at it for three years. You can’t really say there are prejudices, because the INDER gave them the green light to train, but they spend the entire year at the gym. Considering the state of Cuban sports, they should already have become the best in Latin America. Cuban women have always been at the vanguard in sports. The vast majority of women in Latin America don’t have the time to think about sports – they have children at age 15. That’s something that isn’t being taken advantage of.”
Mayelin, a baseball player, also isn’t happy with how her sport, whose female selection was recently included in the official calendar, has been handled.
“Even the National Championship is hard to organize. Not all provinces participate because of logistical issues, and the official venue is passed on from province to province like a hot potato till the last minute. Don’t get me started about trips abroad. We went to the world championship last year, but that’s it. I play the sport because I like it, but sometimes I wonder whether I’m a masochist or something like that.”
Yudelmis, who rides kilometer after kilometer on her bicycle every day, going around the Renaldo Paseiro cycle track to the east of the Cuban capital, is of a different opinion.
“Women are the ones carrying the torch in cycling, and we’ve even won Olympic medals. That’s why we’re a priority and go to far many more competitions than men do. It’s never as it should be, because we participate in maybe two out of five World Cups, but, with that alone, we earn enough points to attend the multi-sport games. The ones who get discouraged in cycling are the men, because they don’t have results and the few that do have left the country.”
That may be true, but cycling is the exception, as perhaps is judo, in which women have more opportunities to train than men do. A balance is caught sight of in disciplines like Tae Kwon Do, athletics and shooting, but the balance is tilted towards the male side in nearly all other sports.
At any rate – and against all odds – women continue to shine in Cuban sports and to fight for true equality. Through sacrifice and performance, they have earned their current place, and, with the same premises, will one day see the day in which none feels underprivileged or underestimated.