Castro and Cuban Sport

Fidel Castro, Godfather of Sport

When Cuba, as a colonial outpost of Spain, sent its athletes to the first Olympic Games to be held in the Americas, in St. Louis in the USA in 1904, the small country bagged more than its fair share of medals, 9 in total, the bulk of these of for fencing. One can picture the fencing schools and academies of the elite that fostered this aristocratic skill and stimulated Cuba’s further emergence, after one gold at Paris 1900, onto the international sporting stage; and incredibly, the 9 medals were sufficient to place Cuba in third place in overall rankings of nations. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016 Cuban athletes won 11 medals in total, and its 5 golds comprised 3 in boxing and 2 in wrestling; it was placed eighteenth in overall national rankings. In the history of the Summer Olympics the sports in which Cuban athletes have won most of its medals are boxing, athletics, wrestling, judo, fencing, baseball, volleyball, weightlifting, taekwondo, shooting and canoeing. But this is not a narrative of consistent and comparable levels of sporting achievement by Cuban sportsmen and women. For in between St Louis and Rio, in the mid-twentieth century, sport was a core element of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary strategy. A baseball fanatic himself, he and his political colleagues saw sport as a means of enhancing the everyday lives of the Cuban population, and raising the image and profile of the country through the achievements of the “new” men and women who were children of the Cuban revolution.

Castro was a remarkable orator and a brilliant self-publicist. When the USA began embargos of Cuba after the 1959 revolution, Castro arranged to be photographed playing golf with Che Guevara (or, at least, making contact with a ball on a putting green as a crouching Che followed the action). This was a mickey-taking moment staged to embarrass the USA’s President Dwight Eisenhower, who had reputedly kept Castro himself waiting before an encounter whilst finishing a golf session; Castro criticised and then banned golf as a “bourgeois” sport. He got himself photographed playing table tennis, the sport at the heart of the ping-pong diplomacy between Richard Nixon’s USA and the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. When the FIFA-baiting bad boy of world football, Diego Maradona, looked for an off-centre ally it was to Cuba that he turned, photographed with Fidel Castro, and we are asked to believe that just a few years before his death Fidel himself wrote to his “old friend” Maradona assuring him that he was still alive. So sport was in effect for Castro a form of political message-making, a vital tool in the symbolic armoury of his country’s Cold War politics. But it was also much more than that, as the sport development strategy developed in the 1960s was directed inwards to the benefit of the overall population.

In 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution, Castro’s government created the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). This was the same year in which the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco ended in a humiliating defeat and retreat of the aggressors. In the following years, sport was to feature prominently in the Cuban political project to improve the lives of Cuban people through education, health and medical care, and sport, physical activity and recreation. The policy adopted for sport and physical activity was called “massivity”, meaning the engagement of the masses, of all of the people, in beneficial forms of exercise, which would also generate a talent-spotting process leading to the selection of sportsmen and women with particular potential, and their possible inclusion in special support and development programmes. Cuban coaches, supported by exchanges and alliances with the Soviet Union, would be on constant alert for athletic potential. The great middle-distance runner Alberto Juantorena started out as a basketball player, attending state basketball school. But a Polish coach observed his phenomenally effective long-striding running style and Juantorena was switched to the athletic programme; in 1976 at Montreal he became the only male athlete to win both the 400 and 800 metre titles at an Olympic Games, and has since held the highest positions in his country’s sport administration. His contemporary, the boxer Teofilio Stevenson, won 3 Olympic boxing golds, in Munich, Montreal and Moscow and when asked why he had never looked to leave Cuba to fight Mohammed Ali, to become rich beyond the Cuban imagination, replied with the rhetorical question “what is a million dollars against 8 million people who love me?”. Cuba was exciting and astonishing the world, its women volleyballers chasing the medals at Summer Olympics up to 1980, its boxers accumulating titles almost by habit, and its track-and-field athletes sustaining levels of world-class performance.

Whilst the population was encouraged and supported to engage in sport and physical exercise for both fitness and fun, so complementing the top-class medical care available to post-revolution citizens, its internationally competitive athletes made Cuba and INDER the wonder of the sporting world. At Moscow in 1980, when the USA and many other countries boycotted the Games, Cuba shot up the medal rankings, finishing fourth in the rankings after the Soviet Union, East Germany and Bulgaria; Britain was in fifth place. Cuba boycotted Los Angeles ’84, following the Soviet Union’s tit-for-tat line in response to the US-led boycott of Moscow’s Games, though the Cuban rationale cited security issues as the primary concern underpinning the decision; and Seoul in 1988 (in solidarity with North Korea). Cuba then re-emerged at Barcelona ’92 to finish fifth in the overall rankings, one of its gold medals won by the superb women’s volleyball team that defeated the “Unified Team” (drawn from the old Soviet Union and some of the reconstituted states of its fragmented empire) to take its first Olympic gold. Barcelona was really the apex of the Cuban sporting miracle, when a second generation of children of the revolution came out of the shadows after a twelve-year absence from the Olympic stage, to suggest that the INDER programme was as strong as ever. But political worlds were shifting, and Fidel Castro’s sporting policies could not hold their own for much longer.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the thawing of the Cold War, and a stronger current within the sporting world opposing use of drugs and performing-enhancing substances, the Cuban profile on the Olympic podium was in decline. Still in the top ten in the rankings at Atlanta (8th) and Sydney (9th), Athens 2004 saw Cuba slip to 11th, and a nadir in Beijing at 28th. Respectable positions in the medal table at London (16th) and at Rio in 2016 (18th) were retrieved, based in the sustained strength of its boxers and wrestlers. More top baseball players had also left Cuba for the MLS and the lure of the American Dream; around four dozen of these plied their trade in the US at the time of Castro’s death. But the historical record and the sporting archives, as well as the educational and medical transformation of a neglected, deeply divided and unequal society, will be testimony to the positive dimensions of Fidel Castro’s Cuba: physical culture, learning and healthcare integrated into an effective formula that could shape the consciousness of a country for generations. Of course Castro was a dictator, a demagogue, a tyrannical anti-democrat. But his common touch and populist strategies combined idealism and political pragmatism in widely influential ways; and no more so than in the world of sport both within his country and across the globe. A “cruel dictator”, President-elect Trump labelled him, hearing of his death, and with some justification; but Fidel Castro’s Cuba may in the long run be a more compelling fable of political experimentation than the uninformed, ignorant and incoherent triumph of Donald Trump. And at the heart of that experiment was sport, developed and supported for both the benefit and health of the people, and the image of the nation.

Alan Tomlinson November 26th 2016