A Cuban Mix of Muscle and Ideology

Article excerpt

Sport, a mainstay of Cuba's socialist Government, seeks to affirm 'patriotic values and national identity'

"We owe 38 years of sporting achievement to the unconditional backing Cuban sport has received from the revolutionary Government and especially from our commander-in-chief Fidel Castro," says Humberto Rodriguez, President of the National Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Recreation of Cuba (INDER), founded in 1961. The results speak for themselves. With only 11 million inhabitants and despite severe economic crisis, Cuba came fifth in the Olympic medal rankings at Barcelona in 1992, and eighth at Atlanta in 1996. At the Pan-American level, it ranks second, after the United States.

"Mass involvement in sport and highly efficient structures have made it possible for big stars to emerge," says Norge Marrero, national commissioner for rowing. Cuba has 31,700 physical education instructors, one for every 458 inhabitants, compared with one teacher for every 42 persons, and one doctor for every 170. For 1999, the budget for sport is 125 million Cuban pesos (the same figure in U.S. dollars at the official rate, although the semi-official rate is 20 to the dollar), which is equivalent to the budget for culture and science. "Sport is part of the people's culture," Marrero adds, "because people have learned that sport means quality of life and health."

Higher, stronger, faster . . . and more revolutionary. Outside the sports arena, a Cuban athlete may be treated as a prince or a villain, depending on an imaginary borderline traced by his own loyalty to the state. The boxer Teofilo Stevenson, Olympic champion in 1972, 1976 and 1980, was admitted to the "revolutionary hall of fame" because he rejected lucrative professional contracts abroad. A different fate has awaited other eminent sportsmen and women, mostly baseball players, who, having opted for the temptations of professional status and for exile, have had their names struck off the official roster. Desertions are a thorn in the revolution's side.

But according to Rodriguez, Cuban sport "cannot ignore a century marked by globalization and neo-liberalism". The champion of amateurism, it has been forced willy-nilly to wade into a sea of professionalism and excessive commercialization. …


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