Cuba's open secret: Fidel-ity to sports
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Whatever waves Cuba makes aquatically in Indianapolis will be generated by a strong men's water polo team and breast stroke swimmer Pedro Hern'andez, who is no Mark Spitz, but is considered a bona fide medal threat.Skip to next paragraph
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Cuba's calculated emergence in sports raises what was a very low Olympic profile from 1904 until the last two decades. A gold-medal drought of 68 years was broken in 1972, when a trio of Cuban boxers struck gold, including heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who emerged as a powerful John Henry sort of figure in the ring.
Stevenson, who retired several weeks ago, retained his Olympic title in 1976 and '80 and became, with track man Alberto Juantorena, a superstar who symbolized Cuba's athletic rebirth.
Juantorena, who once dedicated his Olympic victories to Castro, achieved the unprecedented feat of winning both the 400- and 800-meter races at the same Montreal Olympic Games in 1976. Today he administers Cuba's highly organized physical education and recreation programs from the elementary through junior college levels.
Even in street clothes, he is a striking, broad-shouldered figure sitting behind his desk in an office at Sports City. The seven phones within his reach, including a red one he jokingly calls a White House hot line, hint at his position of authority.
Juantorena tries to play down the impression by pointing out that three of the phones are disconnected. Still, the rewards of loyalty to the state and high achievement in its name are apparent. Among the perks of his job are two Soviet -made Lada automobiles, which aren't fancy, but certainly a luxury by Cuban standards, especially since a driver is assigned to whisk him around in one of the cars. His responsibilities are wide-ranging in a country that strives to cultivate broad sports participation through mandatory physical education.
``One of the fundamental objectives of the revolution is massive sport,'' a Cuban sportswriter observes.
Castro himself has made physical fitness a priority item. He no longer smokes, and has inspired a health consciousness that has senior citizens stretching on street corners.
To fuel its mass sports culture, Cuba needs instructors - lots of them. Many are trained at the Higher Institute of Physical Culture, a 1,400-student university in Sports City that weaves Marxist-Leninist philosophy into its curriculum. There is no tuition, and world-class athletes who attend can work out schedules that permit them to train and compete while their living expenses are covered by the state.
Cuban national teams have competed against US teams both in Cuba and in the States. The cold-war attitude between the two countries, however, is the fundamental reason that Cuba boycotted the '84 Los Angeles Olympics. ``Members of the Cuban delegation may have been attacked or kidnapped,'' says Juantorena.
The US trade embargo of Cuba has cut off a valuable supply line of top-quality American sports equipment and inspired the Cubans to make most of their own. The factory in Havana, which is operated by the Institute for Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation, the national sports governing body, makes everything from rowing shells and baseballs to chess pieces and parts for stadium lights. Some products, such as ice-hockey jerseys, are even marketed in Canada.
Politically, the US and Cuba remain worlds apart, a fact reflected in US support of Seoul's '88 Olympic plans and Cuba's threatened boycott unless North Korea's alternative plan for sharing the games is accepted.
With the specter of another lost Olympic opportunity blowing in the wind, the Cuban athletes don't have to be reminded of the importance of the Pan Am Games as a showcase for their talents. They are in Indianapolis to enjoy the fun and goodwill, but unlike some other competitors, they have left home ``ready to win.''