How the revolution transformed sports in Cuba

The following is an edited version of the speech made by Rigoberto Zarza, Consul of the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Jamaica, at the Media Launch of the 12th Annual Renewal of the Wesley Powell National Track & Field Meet in Jamaica. This article was first posted on this website on December 11, 2014 and is being reposted on the occasion of the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.wesley powell media launch jamaica dec 3 2014 c2

Eligio Sardinas Kid Chocolate

Eligio Sardinas, Kid Chocolate

During the first few decades of the 20th century, very few Cuban sportsmen, apart from baseball players (this sport had strong ties to the US), were well-known internationally. Probably the best known was boxer Eligio Sardinas (pictured) called Kid Chocolate, who was the first Cuban boxer to win an international title.  To achieve this, however, Kid Chocolate had to migrate to the US where he fought out of New York City.

Ramon_Fonst cuban fencer

Ramon Fonst, Cuban fencer

Also known internationally were fencer Ramon Fonst (pictured) and chess player Jose Raul Capablanca. Most of these champions got their victories due to their immense talent and deep love for sport, as they generally came from very humble families and thus could not afford proper training.

The majority of the population had no access to sport activities

Generally speaking, the majority of the population had no access to sport activities, as the fields and facilities required for participation in sports belonged to the clubs of the upper class. In addition, access to quality physical education was very limited. In fact, before the revolution in 1959, there were only 951 sport centres and 609 physical education and sport trainers serving a population of seven million. This meant just one sports centre for every 7,000 persons and one sports trainer/teacher for every 11,500.

Sports started to change after the revolution

fidel enetrs havana

Fidel enters Havana

After the triumph of the Revolution in January 1959, sport, and many other social indicators, started to move towards a more human conception.

With the revolution just two years old, the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, INDER, was established on February 23, 1961 as the governing branch of all sports in Cuba.

inder pin

Pin of INDER

Also founded after the revolution was the Institute of Sport Medicine. This led to the training of thousands of teachers with the view of extending physical education to all schools of the country.

In fact, physical education became a new subject in the school syllabus as did other sports-related topics at different teaching levels.

Fidel:  Sports the right of the people

More generally the leader of the Cuban revolution argued that sports should be “the right of the people,” not the right of the wealthy.[1] Fidel made it clear that talent in sport comes from hard work and a strong will – traits that are not restricted only to the wealthy but which can also be found among working-class people.[1]

Guided by this conception of sports, professionalism in sports was eliminated in 1962 and a broad-based sports fraternity was created in 1965. This included the building of different facilities throughout Cuba so that any person interested in sports, regardless of his/her class, could practice according to his/her preferences.

The revolution therefore provided the step by step infrastructural support along with the training and education needed by athletes to achieve the many successes at international sporting events for which Cuba is now well-known.

1978: Cuba ranked 8th in the world of sports

juantorena on the podium

Alberto Juantorena on the podium. At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he became the first and so far only athlete to win both the 400 and 800 metres Olympic titles.

The result of the new thinking and broad-based exposure and support given to all those who wanted to excel in sports was significant. For example, in 1978 Cuba’s athletes were ranked eighth in the world, second in the Continent and first in Central America. Data from 2003 shows that more than 1,492 gold medals have been won in the Central American and Caribbean Games; 649 in the Pan American Games and 46 in the Olympic Games. Approximately two million athletes (23,000 of them in the high performance category) currently participate in 38 sports at the national and international level.

At present, there are 11,523 sport centres in Cuba and more than 39,000 sports teachers, which represent 1 out of 342 inhabitants. Physical education is now a compulsory subject at all school levels.

Sport is now viewed differently in Cuba thanks to the revolution.  Our belief is that sports is a right of the people and can be used to promote healthy ethical and moral values including those related to a spirit of solidarity and loyalty to a collective objective.

In our country we also aim to identify the most talented children at an early stage so that special attention can be given to facilitate the development of their special talent in sports-oriented secondary schools.

Because sport is seen as a right of the people, in Cuba the teaching of competitive sports is free of charge. By 1995, we were able to train more than half million people in competitive sports activity.

Our state recognizes the importance of sport in society

Cuban champion boxer Teófilo Stevenson on the podium

Cuban champion boxer Teófilo Stevenson on the podium

Cuban sport is synonymous with education, culture, patriotism, increasing of life’s expectancy and health. It is one of the main activities related to social development. Our State recognizes the importance of sport in society, so the State has supported the practicing of sport activities for the whole population.  The results we have achieved more than justify our efforts and compensate the country for its expenditure in this area.

As mentioned earlier, one only has to look at the amount of medals, the variety of sport competitions and the results achieved in different international events including the Central America and Caribbean Games, Pan-American Games, Sport Games of Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America, World Championships, Paralympics and Olympic Games, to understand the tremendous development achieved by the sports movement in Cuba since 1959.

Obstacles we had to overcome

Of course, we have not achieved these goals without obstacles along the way.  A significant barrier to our progress has been the US economic, commercial and financial  blockade policy towards Cuba imposed for more than half a century now.  The blockade continues to hinder us in sports in many ways, including:

  • It limits Cuba’s access to external financing and thus limits the possibility to acquire sports equipment, which is taken for granted by athletes in other countries;
  • It forces Cuba to buy sports equipment in more distant markets, which of course usually means an increase in their price;
  • It very often denies our athletes the possibility to take part in joint training with American athletes;
  • It denies us the normal and direct relations with different sports institutions in the USA and prevents our athletes from participating in important competitions held in the US; and
  • It prevents our Institute of Sports from obtaining reagents and chemical substances for our Antidoping Lab whenever these substances come from US enterprises or their subsidiaries in third countries.

The role of women in sports

Despite such adversities, sport has been one of the main social activities that have helped to increase the role of Cuban women worldwide. It is only since January 1959 that the names of Cuban sportswomen like Ana Fidelia Quirot Moré started to be known in international competitions.

ana fidela

Ana Fidela Quirot Moré, who specialised in the 800 m but was also successful over 400 m. At 800 metres, she was a two-time World Champion and a two-time Olympic medallist.

Solidarity with peoples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cuban President Fidel Castro and Michael Manley, who served as the fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980 and from 1989 to 1992.

Sports in Cuba did not escape one of the main characteristics of the Cuban revolution, which was the general practice of expressing solidarity with peoples and less developed countries of the world.

In this context, Cuba and Jamaica enjoy a historical friendship and a strong link through sports. Here in Jamaica there is a School for Physical Education and Sportsgc foster collegedonated by Commander Fidel Castro in 1980. I am of course referring to the G.C. Foster College of Physical Education and Sports. It is proudly recognized today that the graduates from this College are quite visible among the coaches of Jamaica’s national teams.

Signing of agreement of bilateral cooperation between Jamaica and Cuba

And more recently, last November 14, a delegation headed by Ms. Natalie Neita Headley, Minister in charge of sports at the Prime Minister’s Office, paid an official visit to Cuba. This visit ended with the signing of an agreement of bilateral cooperation in spheres such as counseling, sport management and development in specific sports such as swimming, volleyball, baseball and athletics (field areas only)

More generally, in 2001, we established The International School for Physical Education and Sports with the main goal of training sport trainers, physical education teachers, rehabilitators, etc, but with a strong personal commitment to the development of sports in their homelands. More than 2,000 persons from 82 nations – mainly from Latin America, Africa and Asia – have graduated from this university.

Sports with the development of the human being as the focus

To sum up, despite of a hostile economic war which has made the road much more difficult, despite talent persecution and aggressions, Cuba, since the 1959 revolution, has been able to impose itself and to occupy places internationally, which seemed in the past to have been designed solely for the so-called first world nations.  We see as the main reason for our success, the fact that our sport movement is the result of a process which has placed the development of human beings as its main objective.

Conclusions

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution  allowed us to pull from a huge potential pool of the entire Cuban population and not just a select few, as was the case before the revolution; we found an appropriate way to move from sports only for a few to develop a real mass sport. It brought about many outstanding successes in different championships and games at the world level. Our idea of sports focuses all attention in development of human beings; providing all rights for comprehensive training, cultural development, recreation and total health and welfare.

Cuba is just an example of what is possible from the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, when opportunities and support are made available. Since the Pan-American Games held in 1975, our victories have contributed to the diminishing of the gap existing between results/medals gotten by our peoples and those gotten by the main Northern sport powers.

Cuba’s Performance at the Summer Olympics
Games Athletes Gold Silver Bronze Total Rank
1900 1 1 1 0 2 12
1904 4 4 3 2 9 3
1908 did not participate
1912  did not participate
1920  did not participate
1924 9 0 0 0 0
1928 1 0 0 0 0
1932 did not participate
1936  did not participate
1948 53 0 1 0 1 28
1952 29 0 0 0 0
1956 16 0 0 0 0
1960 12 0 0 0 0
1964 27 0 1 0 1 30
1968 115 0 4 0 4 31
1972 137 3 1 4 8 14
1976 156 6 4 3 13 8
1980 207 8 7 5 20 4
1984 did not participate
1988
1992 176 14 6 11 31 5
1996 164 9 8 8 25 8
2000 229 11 11 7 29 9
2004 151 9 7 11 27 11
2008 149 2 11 11 24 28
2012 111 5 3 6 14 16
2016

Source of Cuba’s record at the Olympic Games: Cuba at the Olympics

Courtesy JSC: Jamaicans in Solidarity with Cuba

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  1. Pingback: Pan Am Games 2015: Toronto and Havana sporting links | Friendship First, Competition Second – An Amateur Sport Website

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