Cuban athletics, a David versus Goliath story

Granma (December 4) – Many years ago, on putting together a compendium on the international performance of Cuban athletes, the island’s hard-fought second place on the medal table at the Central American and Caribbean Games in the period 1926-1959 left an impression.

With the same amount of gold medals as Mexico, yet with less silver, the Mexicans were superior at two editions (1926 and 1954), while Cuba won one (1930) and didn’t participate in 1959.

Sports on the island were rudimentary at the time and there was almost no support from the Cuban government. On one occasion there were not even funds to participate in baseball, despite being the national frenzy.

The boost to sport following the triumphant Revolution in 1959 ensured that since then track and field events have improved to levels beyond the regional competitions.

Sprinter Enrique Figuerola secured Cuba’s first Olympic fourth place in the 100 meters at the Rome Games in 1964. Four years later, in Tokyo 1964, he took the first silver against the U.S. phenomenon Bob Hayes. In Mexico 1968 he won his second silver in the 4 x 100 meter relay. For these and other merits he was recognized as Athlete of the Decade in Cuba, an additional honor for his sport.

Alberto Juantorena who won gold medals in both the 400 and 800 meter races, in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, is the only Cuban in the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Hall of Fame. Photo: Getty Images

The world athletics governing body previously considered the Olympics as the maximum competition and the world championships did not appear until the 1980s, preceded by three World Cups (1977, 1979 and 1981), considered of comparable rank.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Universiade or World University Games were the only world gauge apart from the Olympics. The appeal grew and the games brought together the cream of the sport. For example, Alberto Juantorena (1:43.44 min in the 800m) and Alejandro Casañas (13.21 secs in the 110m hurdles) fixed two separate absolute world records in the 1977 edition in Sofia.

The case is not the same today. On the commercialized international stage, Cuba has failed to secure medals in scenarios far from the Caribbean region, with five of the last eight Universiade games held in Asia and three in Europe. Cuba went from sending tiny delegations to not attending the last three competitions, perhaps due to the transport costs and the limited resources of its university level sport.

But the many triumphant performances of the last century ensure that the island continues to feature in tenth place on the historical medal table of the university games.

If we refer to the World Championships from Helsinki 1983 onwards, we see that Cuba occupies ninth position overall.

At the World Indoor Championships, from the 1985 Paris Games onwards, the island holds seventh place overall, while in the World Championships according to category (Junior and Youth) Cuba occupies the eighth and tenth positions respectively.

In regional competitions, Cuban athletes have historically been fierce fighters, today enjoying first places in Central American and Caribbean Games and regional Championships. The island also holds second positions in Pan American Games and Ibero-American Championships, logical in the first case due to the presence of the U.S. and in the second rather due to absences, as Brazil took the lead after hosting the 2014 edition to which Cuba sent just two young competitors.

Cuba’s display cabinets treasure over a thousand gold medals from these four regional competitions, with over a hundred more secured in major world competitions (see table), without counting the many others won in the Goodwill Games, Continental Cups, World Finals…

In the Olympic Games Cuba occupies the twentieth position overall, due to the decades before the Revolution in which the island didn’t participate or did so almost symbolically without obtaining a single medal. If we count from 1960 to date, the country would rank in 13th place.

Moreover, it’s important to note that athletics is the most universal sport from a competitive point of view. This is easily confirmed if we make some comparisons. The following arguments seek to establish the validity of this assessment, without devaluing other sports.

In athletics, there is not, and never has there been, any division between professional (paid) and amateur competitors. An attempt to professionalize the sport many years ago failed immediately. Therefore, in the same arena are the best of the best, and a champion can be considered as absolute monarch of the universe. Just as his or her rivals in their respective positions.

In boxing, for example, there is a wall between professionals and amateurs, including different rules. In baseball and basketball the doors were opened, but various obstacles prevent all from attending the biggest competitions.

You may be thinking that the case of football refutes me, due to the excellent level of its World Cups, but it is a par to athletics, though with greater media impact. However, it loses out due to only allowing the under-23 players to compete at the Olympic Games, where athletics reigns in all its glory.

Other sports do not have divisions or restrictions. Their champions are as unquestionable as those of athletics, for example in swimming, gymnastics, volleyball…but they do not have as many competitors nor are they as popular.

Leaving no doubts regarding athletics as the most competitive universal sport, the presence of a small island like Cuba among the ten historical powers of the sport is even more significant.

It is the legacy of previous generations that encourages athletes, coaches and the entire family of current and future athletics. It motivates them to continue to compete with the effectiveness of the legendary David when faced with Goliath.


Olympic champions, record holders and multi-medalists are among the recent inductees: Olisdeilys Menéndez, Iván Pedroso, Anier García and Alejandro Casañas (left to right). Photo: Archives

Since the first induction ceremony in Havana in 2003, through the sixth in 2013, a total of 38 Cubans had entered the Hall. They will now total 47, including 37 athletes and 10 coaches or managers.

In addition to excelling mainly in Olympics and world championships, inductees must have been retired for at least five years.

The upcoming induction of seven Cuban athletes and two coaches to the Central American and Caribbean Athletics Confederation (CACAC) Hall of Fame stands as a tribute to the 110th anniversary of the first athletics competition on the island, on December 3, 1905.

They join all those who shone during the last four decades of the twentieth century, an unforgettable period in Cuban athletics.


Iván Lázaro Pedroso Soler (17-12-1972, Havana). Olympic gold, Sydney 2000; World gold medals, Gothenburg 1995, Athens 1997, Sevilla 1999 and Edmonton 2001; World Indoor gold medals, Toronto 1993, Barcelona 1995, Paris 1997, Maesbashi 1999 and Lisbon 2001, long jump.

Anier Octavio García Ortiz (9-3-1976, Santiago). Olympic gold, Sydney 2000 and Olympic bronze, Athens 2004; World silver medals, Sevilla 1999 and Edmonton 2001, 110m hurdles; World Indoor gold, Paris 1997 and World Indoor silver medals, Lisbon 2001 and Birmingham 2003, 60m hurdles.

Alejandro Francisco Casañas Ramírez (29-1-1954, Havana). World record holder (13.21). Olympic silver medals, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980; silver medals Dusseldorf 1977 and Rome 1981 world cups and bronze, Montreal 1979, 110m hurdles.

Olisdeilys Menéndez Sáez (14-11-1979, Matanzas). Olympic gold, Athens 2004 and bronze, Sydney 2000. Two-time world record holder (71.54 and 71.70) and current Olympic record holder (71.53). World gold medals, Edmonton 2001 and Helsinki 2005, javelin.

Luis Alberto Pérez Rionda (16-8-1969, Matanzas). Olympic bronze, Sydney 2000, 4x100m.

José Ángel César Delgado (4-1-1978, Havana). Olympic bronze, Sydney 2000, 4x100m.

Iván García Sánchez (29-2-1972, Santiago). Olympic bronze, Sydney 2000, 4x100m; World Indoor silver, Paris 1997, 200m.

Amarilis Hernández Mora (18-7-1943, Havana). Coach.

Irolán Hechavarría Bolívar (11-12-1943, Santiago). Coach.

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