By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Cuba, August 29, 2008 – Cuba has had a rude awakening from a three-decade dream as undisputed Olympic games leader in Latin America and the Caribbean, turning in the worst performance since Mexico City in 1968.
Cuba’s slide, down to 28th place in the overall medals count in Beijing, behind Jamaica and Brazil, could mark the low point in a decline that was already noted in the latest regional competitions, and the start of a transformation in the field of sports, whose successes have long been held up as achievements of the socialist system.
“There’s always a silver lining; these results could open the eyes of many people as to what is happening with sports in our country,” Ángel Gutiérrez, who worked as a physical education teacher for over 20 years, told IPS.
“There were obvious problems with training in some disciplines, athletes who did not reach their full potential and others who showed a lack of psychological preparation at key moments,” said Gutiérrez.
In that respect, the former phys-ed teacher concurred with a reporter at Granma, the Communist Party daily, who wrote that shortcomings in technical and tactical preparation in sports like judo and baseball, and on the psychological level in women’s volleyball, destroyed the hopes of bringing home medals in those sports.
In Beijing, Cuba won two gold, 11 silver and 11 bronze medals, the smallest number since Moscow in 1980, when it brought home 20, and the worst ranking since Mexico City in 1968, when it finished in 31st place.
The loss of ground had already been noticed at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena, Colombia, and the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the former, Cuba’s advantage over Mexico, its closest rival, shrank, and in the latter, Cuba took more gold medals than Brazil but less medals overall.
“We have rested on our laurels,” wrote Fidel Castro in one of his regular columns, published Monday by the press.
The ailing 82-year-old former president called for a review of “every discipline and all human and material resources that we dedicate to sports.”
Castro, who had urged Cuba’s athletes to remember the motto of the ancient Spartans: return “with your shield or on your shield,” called for an in-depth analysis and the application of “new ideas, concepts and know-how.”
Before the games, Castro had suggested a “truly democratic in-depth debate on the responsibility” of everyone involved in Cuban sports.
Cuba took part in the 29th Olympic Games with a delegation of 165 athletes competing in 16 disciplines, and the goal of ranking within the first 15 spots on the medals chart.
In his column, Castro also lashed out against the “boxing mafia” that he said managed to deceive the International Olympic Committee and “shamelessly stole the fights from two Cuban boxers in the semifinals.”
“It was a crime what they did with the young men from our boxing team, to complement the work of those who go about stealing athletes from the Third World,” wrote Castro.
Cuba’s boxers, who have traditionally brought home gold medals, returned without any this time around, although they did take four silver and four bronze medals, despite their lack of experience.
In the past two years, the Cuban boxing team lost four gold medallists from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, three of whom defected and are now professional boxers, and one of whom was punished for trying to do the same.
Fidel Castro banned professional boxing in Cuba in 1962.
Defections have also hurt sports like baseball, volleyball, judo and track and field, in which Cuba has a strong tradition.
But perhaps the most painful defeat was in baseball, this country’s most popular sport, when the national team lost 3-2 to South Korea in a decisive match, which could be the last in this discipline’s brief time in the Olympics, which began in Barcelona in 1992.
“We have to improve the quality of our National Series, review our selection and training methods, align ourselves with those who are doing better, and reduce the pressure that we all put on our players and coaches, who are questioned at every turn, every decision,” journalist Sigfredo Barros wrote in Granma.
“The sport has been mixed up in politics and that has put even more pressure on the athletes, especially our baseball players,” 63-year-old Miguel Espinosa, who played on children and youth teams in the 1950s and 1960s, told IPS.
“The glory of our country cannot depend on batting at just the right time or making a winning shot, as if each competition was a battle field,” said Espinosa. “They are athletes, not soldiers.”
Fomenting mass participation in sports was one of the first steps taken by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution. In 1961, the government created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, under the premise that “sports are a right of the people.” (IPS)