Cuba Markets Its Sports Expertise

Coaches and athletes now work in some 40 countries to earn hard currency

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER 30 years on the sidelines, communist Cuba wants to cash in on its sports talent. You won't find anything so crass as a ``Sports Us'' or ``Rent-A-Coach'' sign posted at the Cuba's National Sports Institute in Havana. But Cuban coaches and some athletes can now be hired for a price.

It doesn't take a wealth of capitalist experience, notes Gustavo Rolle, director of Cuba's High Performance Sports, to know that the best place to advertise is on the winners' podium.

``Fourteen gold medalists in Barcelona and 140 in the Pan American games makes an impression,'' Rolle says with a smile. ``There's been an explosion in requests for coaches since those games.''

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The interview was conducted before the stunning defection of 40 athletes and officials from Cuba's 900-plus member delegation to the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico. Cubans dominated the games, which ended Tuesday.

In 1991, after the cutoff in trade with the old Soviet-bloc countries, Cuba's central government said it would no longer fully support athletes at the highest levels of competition. Cuban sports programs would have to become self-financing. Hundreds work abroad

In two years, some 40 countries have snapped up Cuban coaches, methodologists, and specialists in sports medicine. About 400 Cuban sports personnel are working abroad. The biggest demands are in boxing, track and field, baseball, and wrestling. Thirteen nations in the '92 summer Olympics had Cuban coaches in their corners. By renting out Cuban personnel, Rolle estimates that 70 percent of his sports-program costs (equipment, salaries, travel) are covered.

The latest product on sale is Cuban athletes. Spanish sports officials say they've signed Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, to a one-year contract. Sotomayor and six other Olympic-class Cubans will compete in 1994 for the Madrid track club, Larios, which is the current European champion.

Details of the deal are not known, but if it is structured as other agreements are, it's likely that half or more of what the Larios club is paying the athletes will go to the Cuban government.

Boxing promoters in the United States would love to manage Cuban boxers, who cleaned up in the gold-medal count at Barcelona, Spain. But the US trade embargo prevents any such deals between US companies and Cuban athletes or coaches. And, unlike track and field athletes, boxers who compete professionally lose their Olympic eligibility.

It's doubtful that Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz, who has always been an avid sports fan, would give up the Olympics as a showcase. But the recent changes are an indication that the need to generate hard currency is becoming paramount.

And there is a hungry market for Cuban sports know-how. ``There are many small countries, with limited resources, which would like to have the results we have,'' Rolle notes.

With a population of 11 million people, Cuba won 31 medals, fifth-highest total in the 1992 summer Olympics, placing it ahead of larger and more developed countries like France, Japan, and Britain.

Cuban baseball coaches are working in Italy, track coaches in Algeria, and volleyball coaches in Greece. But Latin American countries are the major customers, and Mexico tops the list.

About 40 percent of the coaches in Mexico's national sports development program are now Cuban. That's 164 Cubans in more than two dozen sports. Mexico has also contracted with Cuba for 10 methodologists and 10 sports-medicine specialists.

The availability of Cuban expertise coincides with Mexico's desire to improve its national sports program. Despite a population of nearly 90 million people, Mexico came back from Barcelona with only one Olympic medal - a silver. That was played as a national disgrace in the local news media.

With Cuban help, Mexico is rebuilding its athletic development program from the ground up.

Mexico is developing a system to identify and nurture athletes from an early age. It is also decentralizing its program, sending coaches to the athletes instead of disrupting strong family ties by bringing youths to Mexico City.

``We're developing a strong base of young talent. From this base, we can build the next floor,'' says Yvar Langle Monzalvo, director of Mexico's sports-talent development program.

At the Mexico City National Sports Commission and at six new regional centers, a database of 40,000 athletes aged 6 to 26 is being developed. Every three months the athletes come in for a battery of tests. The results help guide coaches in their training. But there's another purpose: ``This statistical base will help us identify which athletes are best suited to which sport at an early age,'' says Dr. Jacinto Lica Mendoza, director of Mexico's sports-medicine program. ``Sports medicine is one of the foundations of Cuban success,'' he adds. Contracts defer defections

Mexico is also customizing its programs to fit regional physical characteristics: For example, in the northern state of Chihuahua, where youngsters tend to be taller than the national average, basketball and volleyball are emphasized. But in the southern state of Yucatan, where athletes are shorter and stockier, the focus is on wrestling and weightlifting.

Cuban specialists say they're delighted to work in Mexico. ``It's fantastic,'' says Dr. Julio Diaz Becera, who ran Cuba's Maximum Strength laboratory at the National Institute of Sport in Havana before going to Mexico.

Of course, the salary may have something to do with the enthusiasm. Dr. Diaz gets free room, board, and health care plus a salary of $2,000 per month, according to Mexican officials. While half his salary goes to the Cuban government, the remaining $1,000 is about 140 times the equivalent of his salary in Cuban pesos. The economic crisis in Cuba has prompted a growing number of Cuban athletes and coaches to defect - witness the recent exodus in Puerto Rico. But these lucrative overseas contracts may help prevent defections.

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