A sporting superpower

Print edition : February 11, 2005

Cuba's success in the international sporting arena is a reflection of the country's commitment to encouraging sports and physical education at an early age for all its citizens.

recently in Havana

President Fidel Castro inaugurating a baseball tournament in Havana. A file picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

CUBA, a nation of only 11 million people, has emerged over the past two decades as a sporting "superpower". It has consistently found a place among the top 10 nations in the Olympics and other international sporting events since the 1980s. "Sports has always been the priority of the Cuban revolution," said Jose Alvarez, Vice-President of the Council of Ministers and the country's chief representative in the International Olympic Committee. "Sports champions are heroes for our people," he said. He credits President Fidel Castro for the tremendous advances Cuba has made in the sporting arena. "Fidel took a personal interest in sports. He has been a keen sportsman himself." The Cuban Constitution guarantees the right to practise sports.

At the outset of the revolution in 1959, more than half of the 900 sports and physical education instructors left the country. Today there are more than 7,000 such specialists. Ruperto Tabio, vice-president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, said that before the revolution the average life expectancy was 56 years. "Today it is 75 years. We work to increase the participation of the populace in sports and physical activities," he said. In 1961, the National Institute of Physical Education was established.

Professional training of sportsmen began in 1962. "It was not to produce champions but to promote patriotism and social values," said Tabio, himself an athlete with many medals to his credit. Today, for every 125 students there is one physical training coach. Very few countries can boast of such facilities.

Osleidys Menendez of Cuba, who won the gold in Javelin throw, with Mirela Manjani of Greece, who took the bronze medal, in the Athens Olympic Games.-VINO JOHN

Physical education starts at the nursery-level. Twenty-three different sports are taught. In fact, at the elementary-school-level physical education is mandatory. At the age of 12 years, children with an aptitude for sports are sent to special sports schools. There is one such school in every province. The schools produce good results not only in sports activities but also in academics.

Every year, more than 7,000 sportspersons compete in the country's national games. Officials said that their goal is to make these young people "ambassadors of sports for Cuba". The country has so far won more than 1,000 medals in international competitions. Significantly, 97 per cent of the medals were won after the revolution.

Cuba has trained more than 70,000 athletes from many countries. Currently there are 1,300 students from 71 countries receiving sport-related training in the country. Most of them are from Africa and Latin America. Cuba is also among the top chess-playing nations in the world.

CUBAN sportspersons have upheld the Olympic spirit and refused to compromise. Although the Cuban team wore gear from a leading multinational sportswear company in the Athens Olympics, the athletes refused to advertise its products despite being offered huge financial incentives. Alvarez proudly recalls that when the legendary heavyweight boxer Teofilo Stevenson was offered a million dollars to turn professional, his response was that he was already a millionaire. "I am a millionaire. There are millions of Cubans who admire me," he said. Jose Ramon Fernandez, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, said that when Cuban athletes, especially baseball players, go to compete in international events they are "besieged" by so-called agents who offer them huge amounts of money to defect.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali (left) spars with Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson, three-time Olympic gold medalist, in January 1996 at the Roberto Balado boxing gym in Havana.-JORGE REY/GETTY

Cuban officials are critical of rich countries fielding athletes from poor countries in their quest for Olympic medals. The Athens Olympics saw many such instances. At the recent Chess Olympiad in Spain, the Cuban team stood seventh among the 127 teams that participated. Many of the other teams at the top were represented by foreigners. Israel had two Russian players, while the United States had four players from the former Soviet Union.

Alvarez said that performance-enhancing drugs were responsible for the huge medal tallies of some nations. He gave the example of "Balco Laboratories" in the U.S., which had supplied drugs to top American athletes. He is critical of the attitude of the Olympic Committee, which did not do anything for eight years. "Marion Jones won gold medals in Sydney, despite being on drugs. The Olympic Committee should take back her Sydney medals," Alvarez said. He admitted that Cuba too had discovered some cases of "doping". He said that the government was doing its best to weed out unhealthy practices in sports. Two boxers were caught using banned substances. A thorough inquiry was conducted and the coach had to apologise on the front pages of the newspapers.

Four years ago, Cuba opened its first full-fledged anti-doping laboratory, which received certification from the Olympic Committee. "It is manned by qualified personnel. It is used not only for anti-doping tests but also to tackle health problems of athletes," Alvarez said. According to Alvarez, the anti-doping laboratory guarantees that athletes go to all international competitions completely clean. The famous Argentinean footballer Diego Maradona is undergoing treatment in Cuba for drug-related problems. Officials said that other countries could also avail themselves of the facilities of the state-of-the-art anti-doping laboratory.

Jose Fernandez Alvarez, Vice-President of the Council of Ministers.-JOHN CHERIAN

Alvarez said that Cuba and India, despite the geographical distance, had strong sporting links. Cuba has sent boxing and wrestling coaches to India. At present there are two boxing coaches in India.

The Cuban official bemoans the ever-growing clout of multinational companies in the Olympic movement. The high cost of holding international sporting events means that only a handful of countries can host events such as the Olympic Games. "According to our assessment, only 12 or 13 countries can afford to host Olympic Games today," he said. He is of the view that the stupendous cost of the opening and closing ceremonies itself was too prohibitive for most countries. Such festivities can easily be scaled down so that poorer countries too get an opportunity to host the Olympics.

"History will have to speak about Cuban sports not because of what is being done but because of what we have to do in the future," Castro had told the Cuban contingent going to the Athens Olympics. He had suggested in a speech in 1969 that people from humble backgrounds should be encouraged to become good athletes. Before the revolution, only people from the privileged classes had access to training facilities.

Mireya Luis, who was a member of the Cuban volleyball team that won the gold medal in three Olympic Games.-JOHN CHERIAN

The International Olympic Committee has given due recognition to Cuba's international sporting achievements. In December, the world-famous Cuban volleyball player, Mireya Luis, was re-elected to the International Olympic Committee's Athletes Commission. "It is a recognition that they have taken into account our performances," said Mireya, who is a household name not only in Cuba but also in countries like China, where volleyball is a popular game. Mireya was part of the legendary Cuban volleyball team that won the Olympic gold medal three times in a row in 1992, 1996 and 2000. She was voted the best international female volleyball player by the International Volleyball Federation in the mid-1990s.

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