Viewing the Olympics from Cuba

By Circles Robinson*

The last time I saw my father in 2001, we discussed the 2000 Sydney Olympics as best we could, he from his sick bed, imprisoned by his Parkinson’s disease, and me making preparations to move to Havana.

Those were the last Olympic Games he watched on TV, before his death in 2003, but his comments have stayed with me. A patriotic man, grateful for the opportunities he had had in the USA, he nevertheless found his love for sports compromised by the world of advertising and the profit-oriented media business.

“Here it was as if no other country had athletes competing,” he told me. “It was obvious that the business of TV advertising was first and the sports themselves were a far off second,” he added.

I have often recalled those statements when watching first the 2004 Athens games and now the 2008 Beijing Olympics from my apartment in Havana.

There could be nothing more diametrically opposed than Olympics sports coverage in Cuba and the United States.


When Beijing 2008 kicked off on August 8th, 17 days of uninterrupted 24-hour coverage began on Cuban television. Events are beamed in live and also repeated so that everyone gets a chance to see what they want. Like all Cuban TV, the Olympic coverage is commercial free, and virtually all disciplines are shown independent of whether the island has participants.

Much of Cuba is tuned in at all hours watching the events as they happen (despite the 12-hour time difference with Beijing). You know that because the sounds of the TVs can be heard from open doors and windows and if it’s an important match for a Cuban team or individual athlete, collective cheers or sighs can be heard into the wee hours of the morning.

Cuba is a sports-loving country, and interest extends beyond the island’s participation, to that of athletes from other latitudes. In fact, Cuba sends sports trainers to dozens of nations to help them improve their programs.

While many people in the US are also watching the Olympics, the broadcasts themselves are seen as a business venture. This time around NBC Universal, owned by the giant General Electric Corp., “won” the rights to broadcast by paying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) nearly US $900 million. In fact, Reuters reported on August 11th that NBC had already sold over a $1 billion just in ads with plenty more to come. Coverage is focused on the marketable “big names” and the “big rivalries”, with little attention paid to the participation of athletes from other nations.


I am as glued to the TV as any of my neighbors. I particularly like to watch the Olympic track and field events, volleyball and baseball, boxing, rowing and cycling.

The fact that Cuba, a small island nation of 11.2 million people, is competitive with the world powers in several sports adds to the excitement here. The feat is even more significant when taking into account that Cuba uses only Cuban-born athletes while many North American and European countries literally purchase talent abroad.

Cuba’s competitiveness in the Olympic arena began in the 1970s and didn’t fall from the sky. It was the product of a major effort to spread physical education, sports participation and training opportunities throughout the country.

“In Cuba, anyone can become an athlete, whether they are born in Havana or in the most remote village in Guantanamo,” Angel Gutierrez, a retired physical education teacher who taught in primary schools for over 20 years told the IPS news service.

In fact, few of the Cuban amateur stars started their sports careers in the capital. So far, athletes from all over the country have contributed to Cuba’s first Beijing medals including Mijain Lopez (Greco-roman wrestling), Yanelis Barrios (discus) and Idalis Ortiz (Judo) from Pinar del Rio; Yoanka Gonzalez (cycling) from Villa Clara; Anaisy Hernandez and Yanet Bermoy (Judo) from Cienfuegos; Eglys Cruz (shooting) from Sancti Spiritus and Yordanis Arencibia (Judo) from Las Tunas.

The popular Dayron Robles, the 110-meter hurdles world record holder, has qualified for the final heat. He is from the country’s easternmost province of Guantanamo, while javelin thrower Yipsi Moreno, who just won a silver medal, is from Camaguey.

Yes, some top Cuban athletes have decided over the years to accept lucrative contracts abroad and abandon their national team. A “defector” is treated in the foreign mainstream media as another victory for free market capitalism and a triumph of the American dream over a government that sees athletes as stars but does not make them tycoons.

What’s more amazing is how many Cuban athletes refuse the offers, preferring their Cuban lifestyle —which, although above the average living standard for the country, would be considered poverty in terms of material possessions to people from the developed world.

I’m not sure what my father would have thought of life in Havana, but I think he would have greatly enjoyed watching the Olympics with me on Cuban TV – commercial free.

*Circles Robinson’s reports and commentaries from Havana can be read at: