Sport, like medals, is for masses in Cuba

August 19, 1991|By Linda Robertson | Linda Robertson,Knight-Ridder

HAVANA -- Sport is not part of the entertainment industry in Cuba. "Sport is a right of the people," is the slogan trumpeted on gym walls, highway billboards and factory lunchroom murals.

That mantra is the key to the success of the Cuban sports system.

Cuban President Fidel Castro likes to claim that Cuba's athletes have won more international medals per capita than those of any other country. The visibility and drama of athletic victories serve as tools for invigorating his regime and the pride of Cuba's people.

For the first time, Cuba won the Pan Am Games gold medal count, with 140 to 130 for the United States, as the 11th edition of the Games ended yesterday. That performance proves that Cuba's rich sports tradition continues to thrive in tough times with a grassroots development system modeled on that of Germany and the Soviet Union.

"Cuba is no longer good in just baseball and weightlifting," said U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran. "By the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Cuba will be right up there with the U.S., the Soviet Union and Germany."

Cuba's system is unlikely to fall into the chaos other communist systems are experiencing, even as Cuba's economy plummets. Soviet athletes are seeking U.S. sports agents for endorsement opportunities; soon, they have to make money.

The difference in Cuba is Castro, who devotes a large amount of the gross national product to sport and health, his two pet projects.

"Nothing is nobler than sport," he said in a Pan Am Games speech.

More than 80 percent of Cuba's national teams are made up of athletes who have come up through the system. High jumper Javier Sotomayor was plucked from his small hometown, Limonar, even though he was scared to leap the bar at first. Runner Ana Quirot was called "la gordita" -- fatty -- until she was molded into a world-class athlete.

"The system is a well-organized pyramid," said Alberto Juantorena, a former Olympic gold medalist and vice president of Cuba's Sport Ministry. "The aim is to build better citizens through sport."

At the top of the Cuban pyramid, there are no Patrick Ewing-like contracts. A sampling of athletes said they earned about 240 pesos (about $180) a month, above the national average of 160 pesos. They don't live much better than their neighbors, but the daily hassles that wear Cubans to the bone -- waiting in line for hours to make even the smallest transaction, cooking sometimes with nothing but eggs -- aren't a concern of the athletes.

Travel is their main perk. They can buy things abroad -- discus thrower Luis Delis bought a JVC stereo for his cramped apartment; Quirot wears makeup women can't find in Cuba.

While the emphasis on physical education in the United States declines, with public schools slashing the number of PE credits required, Cuba considers that to be its foundation. About 2 million children participate in five to seven PE classes per week. Children are monitored and tested during elementary school activities by teachers for signs of talent, size and desire.

"The U.S. has plenty of youth leagues and clubs, but they depend on parents with free time," Moran said. "In Cuba, everything is more centralized."

After graduation, Cuban athletes can get a job or enroll in college. Most choose sports-related majors, but Juantorena studied economics at the University of Havana. They train with their national teams.

Athletes can expect good jobs in the system. Former sprinter Enrique Figuerola supervises recreation programs. Former baseball star Urbano Gonzalez went back to his hometown to coach kids.

"Our life is guaranteed," said former boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who works for the Sports Ministry as boxing coach and recruiter.

Nobody graduates to professional sports in Cuba because there are no major leagues, no beach volleyball circuit, no NBA.

The system doesn't serve just the stars. There are "grandparents circles," exercise clubs for the elderly. There are 69 "Ready to Win" cities, where volunteers hold seminars and build sports museums. There are aerobics programs on TV.

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