Cuban sports machine is built from ground up Home-grown talent triumphs at Games

HAVANA — HAVANA -- It's not the air. It's not the water. And it is most definitely not the equipment.

Cuba is a country of 10.6 million people with a crippled economy, an out-of-favor political doctrine -- and a humming sports machine.


On an island where street lights flicker, food is rationed and lines of anxious shoppers clog the sidewalks, home-grown athletes triumph.

The 11th Pan American Games that conclude Sunday have become a showcase not just for Cuba's athletes, but also for its sports bureaucrats. The Cubans are reaping the benefits of the home-field advantage and piling up gold medals at an astonishing rate.


Entering yesterday's competition, the United States led in overall medals with 300, including 113 gold. The Cubans had 232, but 117 gold.

True, the United States left many of its top athletes home. But this is not a story about numbers, or even of Us vs. Them competition. It is a tale of emerging excellence.

"Sports for us is a matter of pride," said Alberto Juantorena, the vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports.

Consecutive Olympic boycotts in 1984 and 1988 have not stopped the Cuban athletic program. Neither has the country's current economic crisis, which was triggered by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and a cutback in Soviet aid.

Against all odds, Cuba put together athletic facilities for the Games with seemingly nothing more than tape and wire. And now, the country's athletes are winning in sports they had never before dominated.

On Aug. 3, when Alberto Cuba crossed the finish line in the men's marathon to win the first event and Cuba's first gold medal, he established a pattern for the Games.

Cuba's men's water polo team upset the United States in the final. Twenty-nine of 30 weightlifting golds went to Cubans. Rioger Alberto became Cuba's first diving gold medalist, in the 10-meter platform competition.

The Cuban women's basketball team shocked the heavily favored Americans and came away with a silver. The men's basketball team soared into the medal round. The men's team handball squad ousted the Americans, won the gold and earned a berth in the 1992 Olympics.


What is going on here, anyway?

In 1987 at Indianapolis, Cuba won 75 golds. Now, it is matching its unfriendly neighbor to the north nearly medal for medal, and flexing its muscles.

But this is not the second coming of the East Germans. Though both are small Communist countries that placed an inordinate amount of resources into athletics, their sports systems were never mirror images.

The East Germans developed elite athletes, period. They discovered athletic prodigies at an early age and then forced them into training schools, sometimes over the objections of their parents.

East Germany also concentrated on sports that yielded numerous Olympic medals. East Germans were wonderful in track and field, but stayed away from volleyball and basketball. They had terrific luge and bobsled programs, but let the Soviets, Czechs, Canadians and Americans battle for one team hockey medal.

The Cubans are different.


"Sports is the right of the people," reads a quotation from Cuban President Fidel Castro on a wall in the Sports City Coliseum.

The Cubans excel in track and baseball, in wrestling and volleyball. Their stated ambition is to win individually and collectively.

"Our goal is to develop a sports system to improve the health of our population," Juantorena said. "We don't pursue sports to win medals. Lots of people are shocked that Cuba can be a small country and have very positive results internationally."

Picture a pyramid, with beginners on the bottom and Olympians at the top, and you have the rough blueprint of the Cuban system. Thousands of Cubans participate in sports schools at various levels, progressing from local to provincial to national competitions.

"The school games are the basis of the Cuban pyramid for sports development," said Jose Ramon Fernandez, head of the local Pan Am Games organizing committee. "Over 22,000 students participate for sports development. More than 80 percent of our top athletes have come out of these games. So it is a combination here where we obtain good mass sports for the benefit of the people, with good top-flight athletes who want to win medals in international competition."

Before they became international stars, sprinter Ana Quirot and high jumper Javier Sotomayor competed in their home provinces.


"Everything I have won, I owe to the system," Quirot said. "The system made Ana Quirot."

Boxer Felix Savon's career began in a sports school in Guantanamo. Baseball player Omar Linares was a teen-age phenom whose skills were honed in the province of Pinar del Rio.

"Compared to other Latin American countries, Cuban athletes can dedicate themselves to just playing sports," Linares said. "We have different levels of play in our sports, from the kids to the selects."

Cuba not only produces athletes, but it also nurtures coaches. There are more than 28,000 coaches nationwide, with another 100,000 "activists" roaming the island in search of talent. Students at the 15 coaching schools receive fundamental training in biomechanics, and study for five years before receiving degrees in everything from aquatics to baseball to snorkeling.

"Those at the grass-roots level are the cornerstone of Cuban sport," Juantorena said. "The foundation of our system is physical education at the high school level. In Cuba, sports is mass participation."

This isn't some high-tech system filled with computers and manned by engineers. There are no Air Jordans in Cuba. Even the national teams play with second-hand uniforms and scuffed athletic shoes. But equipment hasn't stopped Cuban athletes from winning medals.


"It's what is underneath the uniform that counts," outfielder Victor Mesa said.