Cuba’s Sports: for Medals or for Health?

All the Glory in the World…

Fernando Ravsberg

Kids playing soccer. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 13 — A few days ago while walking through Old Havana, I saw the police trying to stop some neighborhood kids from playing soccer in a park. There were five simultaneous games underway that were almost completely preventing the activities of other people.

One woman with a Tai Chi group complained that the boys weren’t leaving them space to do their exercises, while several grandparents protested that the flying soccer balls risked hurting their small grandchildren.

I talked with some of the young players, who told me that they didn’t have anywhere else to play since the police fine them if they practice on the grass in the park. This is why the only possibilities for sports are the concrete plazas around town.

And they’re right. The problem isn’t those who want to exercise, but lack of space. For decades the government has promoted sports, but those educational campaigns were more effective than their construction crews.

When many people have yet to get up in the morning, thousands of Cubans have already taken to the streets to jog; shortly after, the parks fill with people doing Tai Chi. Likewise, private gyms are packed during the day, and youth football and baseball are pervasive in the afternoons.

Expenditures on baseketball/volleyball courts or tracks for ordinary people shouldn’t be considered a luxury like in rich countries; rather, these imply significant savings on public health. It’s cheaper to repair sports facilities than to expand physiotherapy wards in polyclinics and hospitals.

Cuba spends a fortune on "high performance sports". Photo: Raquel Perez

Sports are also natural ways to channel the energy of young people, which is especially important in conflictual neighborhoods. Any money spent on sports facilities in these areas results in improved social environments.

It’s a contradiction to see the police who guard the grounds of the Capitolio building chasing little boys who play soccer or baseball while those shady characters who illegally sell cigars to tourists wander around the property with no one bothering them.

“Pro” vs. people’s sports

A few days ago the Cuban delegation left to participate in the Pan American Games. Such athletes are a source of pride for this small island since historically Cuba has taken second place overall in this historic event.

Since 1959, the government hasn’t blinked an eye at funding the costs of “high-performance sports” [Cuban’s essentially professional sports program, though nominally “amateur”]. Its schools were opened in all provinces and young talent started entering the system at the youngest of ages and remained there until their retirement.

People didn’t have to wait long for the victories to start racking up, with each one touching the soul of the nation. However at that time there was also funding to maintain popular sports, those that produced no other awards than a higher quality of life for people.

Things have changed considerably since the crisis of 90s. Many schools don’t have sports areas, there are few running tracks, and in some neighborhoods kids have nowhere to play a game of baseball or soccer.

The Police try to keep the kids from playing soccer on the esplanades and walkways. Photo: Raquel Perez

Nonetheless the country continues to spend enormous sums on high-performance sports though this includes only a tiny minority of the population. And to make matters worse, part of that effort ends up in the Major Leagues or in professional boxing in the US.

The “Guidelines” approved by the party and Parliament included a call “to prioritize the development and promotion of physical culture and sports in all their forms as means to improve the quality of life, education and the integral development of citizens.”

If that were the party and the government’s true priority, then most of the financial resources devoted to that activity would be spent on popular sports and the state budget would reflect this for the understanding of the citizenry.

Nothing should matter as much as a healthy population – not even the glory of winning a few more medals. When all is said and done, as Jose Marti noted more than a century ago, “All of the world’s glory fits in a kernel of corn.”

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

One thought on “Cuba’s Sports: for Medals or for Health?

  • well you know in Canada people call the police on children playing road hockey on neighborhood roads.. this has more to do with age and stage issues than economic reasons for providing places for any type of event to be played… why not bring everyone together and “problem solve”.. why is this a police issue… really?

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