US blockade and Cuban sports

By MIGUEL HERNANDEZ

HAVANA (3 October 2007) – THE Cuban sports movement has had to face several obstacles during the nearly half-century US blockade that run from denying Cuban athletes and sports officials from attending competitions or conferences in the US, including Puerto Rico, to roadblocks in acquiring sports equipment and medicines.

As one simple example, a professional baseball could be bought for $4.00 US in the USA but costs Cuba $7.00 US since it has to purchase them in Japan. If you take into account that Cuba uses a minimum of 30,000 balls a season, buying them in the US would be a savings of $90,000 US.

For reasons like this, Cuba has to spend more than a million dollars a year, taking away valuable funds that could be used in the country’s sports development and leagues, notes Leonidas Lara, director of Cuba’s Sports Equipment Industry.

“The obstacles met to obtain state-of-the-art technology to produce sports items have led to stagnant development. Today, a large part of the equipment used is obsolete, also affected by a lack of spare parts,” said Lara. The official said it takes a major effort to supply each school with balls and simple but attractive uniforms for competitions.

“The ban on access to the US market has made us have to use third countries to purchase a variety of products, which substantially increases the cost,” said Mario Granda, director of the Sports Medicine Institute and the Anti-Doping Laboratory.

Cuba constantly faces inconveniences in acquiring nutrients and rehabilitative medicines, laboratory reagents, original and spare parts, and new technologies and resources necessary for diagnostic research and treatment demanded by today’s sports. “These are things we’ve had to deal with on a daily basis and even more so with the tightening of the blockade last year. This is rarely mentioned publicly along with the great triumphs of our athletes,” said Dr. Granda.

Despite the difficulties, the anti-doping laboratory, recognized by the International Olympic Committee, has increased its prestige and by the end of 2007 will have an increase in the number of sports federations from other countries seeking its services. It’s importance is also noted in the fact that not one Cuban athlete has tested positive in the big competitions during this Olympic cycle, and injuries are down in local events.

“The possibility for US specialists and Cubans to carry out joint research has been totally nixed,” said Arnaldo Rivero, an expert at the Cuban Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute (INDER).

“In the Marabana 2006 competition, 120 US athletes and 50 Puerto Rican athletes that usually take part in our event were prohibited from coming,” said Carlos Gattorno, organizer of the popular Cuban marathon.

“The limitations on US citizens traveling to Cuba has impeded groups, clubs and individual runners from participating, including representatives of non-governmental organizations of retired athletes and others with disabilities,” added the official who is preparing for the next edition of the event.

Alfredo Casanas, director of International Relations for INDER, says he has a file on his desk with a long list of visa denials over many years, including several well-known cases.

“As part of the sports exchange between the national federations of the two countries, the US wrestling team should have come in January for a joint training, but a license to travel was denied,” he said.

Casanas recalled that Donald Porter, president of the International Softball Federation was finally able to visit Cuba for the induction ceremony of a Cuban trainer into the Hall of Fame, but not how he had planned. He was unable to travel directly from Miami — he lives in Florida — but had to come via Mexico.

The Treasury Department also denied permission to US cyclists to take part in last February’s 32nd Vuelta, a Cuba cycling competition.

A similar situation happens when Cubans are invited to accept awards at events in the US. Guillermo Martinez, member of the International Swimming Federation, was never granted a visa to be at the Water Polo Hall of Fame where he was to be given a prize.

“Within two years the Central American and Caribbean Games take place in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. On several occasions we have communicated our concern on the issue of visas and the guarantee of conditions for our delegation. We have received assurances from the organizers and president of ODECABE, Puerto Rican Hector Cardona, that there will be no problems,” said Casanas, who is scheduled to attend a general assembly meeting of the regional body this month in Mayaguez.

The official said it’s not just the denial of visas but the uncertainty involved up to the last minute. He noted that on repeated occasions there are long lines of athletes at airport terminals, and the Cubans have missed flights, as happened this year with the soccer team that went to the Gold Cup Tournament in the US. Likewise, the physician of the men’s volleyball team only received authorization to travel four days before the end of an international tournament in Los Angeles.

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