HAVANA TIMES, April 16 — Last week I read my colleague Irina’s diary entry “Alienated by Baseball,” and despite being one of those people who are in fact alienated (I didn’t miss a single strike in the finals here), I felt that I agreed with what she wrote.
In fact, I could have added something told to me by a friend I visited the day after the last game. I stopped over as happy as I could be and burning with desire to talk about baseball. This was not only because the hometown Industriales team had won, but because the final game of the playoff had been one of the best games I’d ever seen.
In the face of my enthusiasm, my friend only said, “They should give medals to both teams and even pay them, because what they did was take the spotlight off the Ladies in White.”
In fact, no one doubts that sports are spectacles and entertainment, but they’re also politics. It’s said that during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Hitler sought to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race through sports, and that he was demoralized when the US African-American Jesse Owens walked away with four gold medals in track and field, deftly defeating the Germans. (Other versions state that Hitler wasn’t humilliated by the black athlete and that Owens was treated with more racism in his own country than in Germany.)
When Cuban athletes face competitors from any capitalist country (especially the United States, and even more so if the sport is baseball) it’s hardly a simple sporting event. It’s a confrontation between socialist sports and capitalist sports. It’s the sport of an underdeveloped and blockaded country of eleven million inhabitants, with scarce resources, where sports are the people’s right. That situation is contrasted to that of the opponents – from rich countries with large populations and higher levels of economic and technological development.
In the World Baseball Classic this meant amateur, socialist and revolutionary sports pitted against a system of sports for money, which generates everything from doping and the buying and selling of athletes.
When a Cuban baseball player or boxer decides to go professional and therefore practice their sport in another country (since professional sports don’t exist in Cuba), that person is deemed a deserter who has betrayed their homeland and their people. On the other side, they also automatically become instruments used to attack the Cuban government.
In terms of professional sports in Cuba, I know people who say the sole difference between an athlete here and professionals in other countries is the level of pay, because “high-performance athletes” here also live for and from their sport. Our athletes are soldiers, the recognized heirs of the lineage of independence fighters Antonio Maceo and Camilo Cienfuegos, and when they return (if they return) —victorious or not— they receive the symbolic medal of dignity.
Yes, sports are also political, and Nelson Mandela knew that well. Recently at the cinema I saw the movie Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and with the incredible actor Morgan Freeman in the role of South African President Nelson Mandela.
The movie could have been about his struggle, his imprisonment, his 27 years locked away in prison, and then it would have concluded with his coming to power. But the director preferred to start with what could have been the end in order to focus on the president’s struggle to eliminate hate between blacks and whites in his country and to build a nation.
Coming to power is difficult, be it either along the path of armed struggle or through elections, but what’s even more difficult is making wise and just use of that power. The line that separates a leader from a dictator is very fine. This could have converted Mandela had he attacked the whites of South Africa and robbed them of their rights (as they had done to him and the entire black population).
What would have happened in South Africa if Mandela had been allowed to act out of the desire for vengeance? Instead, he chose the more difficult path: to forgive and to look for unity in his country. For that he appealed to sports.
Paraphrasing my friend Irina, the movie could have been called “People Alienated by Rugby,” because gradually the South Africans (black and white) forgot about all their problems —not only violence and hate, but poverty, shortages and high prices— to concentrate on the World Cup of that sport.
Gradually, what seemed impossible became possible: South Africa made it to the finals and won the title. Whites and blacks put aside hatred to find a common objective that unified them. They could hug at the end.
I’m not so naive as to think that with the movie’s happy ending all the problems of South Africa have ended. Nonetheless, I left the cinema feeling optimistic, how I suppose the director hoped. In any case, I continue to believe that sports are political, but I believe that sometimes —like in the case of South Africa— this can be good.