Cuba's Sports Machine Is Showing Signs of Wear

Shoes are taped together; coaches are hired overseas

CUBAN gymnast Annia Portuondo, perhaps the best young Latin American woman on the balance beam and parallel bars, has high hopes for international recognition some day, but she's going to have to wait.

Her country, an astonishing sports machine now desperately strapped for cash, couldn't afford to get its star gymnasts to Olympic qualifying competitions last October in Japan. Consequently, Annia will not be in Atlanta this summer.

For most of the years since Fidel Castro Ruz's revolution triumphed in 1959, Cuba has been known not just as a producer of sugar and cigars, but of top international sports figures as well. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Cuba won 31 medals, the fifth-highest total, a tremendous feat for an island of 11 million people. Credit goes to Cubans' love of sport and a highly organized national sports system, which spots potential athletes at an early age and culls them for training in exclusive schools.

But after Cuba's economy shrank by almost half in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, an amazing athletic system has begun to look a little ragged.

A visit to an Olympic track-and-field training site reveals some athletes training in taped-together shoes. Others complain of poor-quality food, and even some coaches fret that a long-term lack of proper nutrition may take a toll on performance. "They have poor-quality Cuban-made shoes to train in, and if you see them in good foreign shoes it means some family member sent them from overseas," says Alan, a mid-level participant in the national wrestling program. "I know swimmers who complain the pools aren't kept clean for lack of chemicals," he adds, "and it worries them."

Beginning in 1992, with the end of all Soviet aid, the Cuban government ordered the country's sports program to begin paying its own way. Hundreds of Cuba's best trainers have been farmed out (on hard-currency-producing contracts) to foreign countries - potential rivals. So have some athletes. With the Olympics approaching and interest in Cuba's athletes rising, foreign journalists are now being charged for interviews and photo sessions with potential Olympic medal-winners. (The Monitor did not pay to interview or photograph athletes for this article.) Cutbacks in travel budgets have lessened athletes' access to international competitions.

Perhaps most worrisome are results suggesting that the little engine that could no longer can. Cuba was No. 2 in the medal tally (the United States was No. 1) at the Pan American games in Argentina last year, but it sent 490 athletes and competed in eight fewer sports than at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, where Cuba had 633 athletes. Last summer, Team USA swept a four-game baseball series against Cuba.

After announcing last year that it would send 260 athletes to the Atlanta Games, Cuban officials say only 187 will go. Only those with a chance at bringing home a medal will be sent.

"We're going to take the fifth spot again in Atlanta, and maybe bring home even more medals," says a smiling and energetic Alberto Juantorena, vice president of Cuba's National Olympic Committee. He's best-known internationally for his gold-medal performances in the 400- and 800-meter races in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. "That's not a prediction," he adds, "it's reality." Boxing, track-and-field events, fencing, weightlifting, women's judo and volleyball, swimming, and baseball are areas in which he says Cuba will excel.

Mr. Juantorena listens politely to a reporter's recitation of Cuba's woes, then abruptly waves a hand dismissively. "Yes, yes - I know we're a country with problems. But sports can still count on 100 percent support from the government," he says from his office dominated by a collage of black-and-white photos of Fidel suited up for his beloved baseball.

"Despite the situation, we have 32,000 physical education instructors, one for every 350 Cubans," he says. "And when we compete, it's with real love and appreciation for our country in our hearts."

Across Havana, at a neighborhood sports complex, it's hard to deny the enthusiasm and sense of community. The facilities at the Jose Mart field and gymnasium may sag and be poorly lit, but the girls on the gymnastics floor and the boys on the wrestling mats are all determination.

"The conditions were better when I started out, no doubt," says Daniel Pozo Rodrguez, who began wrestling in 1966 at age 15, and went on to Pan-American and Olympic games before becoming a youth wrestling trainer in 1984. "Now we have children without shoes and other equipment."

The problems have yet to show up "in the quality of our athletes and in results," Mr. Pozo says, but he worries that that day is not far off. "I do think about the kids' nutrition, and it seems logical that sending [overseas] so many coaches could end up hurting our results." Still, he says, he remembers the coaches from Russia and Bulgaria that helped him as a young man, "Now we're just sharing our technical expertise in kind." He may himself be off to Portugal on a four-year contract to help that country train for the 2000 Olympics.

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