This is the first of a three-article series of the rise and growth of Cuban sport development as well an insight into the elite sporting athletes that the country consistently create.
Cigars, landscape and plantations. Just a few things that Cuba are known globally for. Something that certainly flies under the radar – wrongly, may I add – is their sporting excellence. I’m not just talking about their consistent world boxing champions either. Between the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Cuba won 195 medals, including 67 golds. During that time period, they either matched or outperformed countries with a much healthier economy, Canada and Great Britain to name a few.
Little is reported on Cuba and their sporting achievements; their methods are largely unexplored and Robert Huish – who has studied the sport development of Cuba in depth – certainly believes that the Cuban sports model could be successfully adopted around the world. Sport has been a part of Cuban culture since the 19th century and started to flourish in the 1990s. For 150 years, Cuba has placed an importance on sport. The government view it as a tool to increase the living standard for the vulnerable citizens of their nation and they believe access to physical exercise is a basic human right. Facilities – whether that is sporting stadiums, tennis courts or swimming pools – are available to all citizens and the state conduct regular exercise classes to increase the general wellbeing of the population.
Cuba’s national sport is baseball, in which they have consistently produced fantastic players. The Cuban government have loaned players out to Japan and have taken up to 80% of the players’ wages. This, effectively, gets reintegrated into the system and more stars are created. In the 19th century, baseball was just as much Cuban as it was American. In fact, the first baseball teams that were established in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica were founded by plantation owners who had left Cuba to expand their businesses throughout the Caribbean.
Baseball played an influential part of Cuba’s second War of Independence against the Spanish as baseball games were held to raise funds to help with the war effort – they were successful as the Spanish were finally ousted out of Cuba in 1898. Sadly, the nationalists were presented with a problem immediately after American intervention soon followed. Cuba became unrecognisable with schools teaching English instead of the native Spanish, the American dollar was the preferred choice of currency and the country became awash with US exports.
Poverty and inequality worsened in Cuba as America’s presence grew stronger by the day. Despite the decline of the beautiful country, the Cuban population still had one thing they treasured closely, sport. The standard of baseball was at its pinnacle and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) would often challenge Cuban teams in a variety of sports. The former would usually prevail victorious, except one sport, there was one physical sport that the Americans could just not beat their neighbours at – boxing. Despite Cuba being dominant in the ring, nationalism started to decrease and when Cuban baseball players were being exiled to the US to play in the Major League Baseball (MLB), Cuban sport was at an all time low. Between the years of 1947 and 1961, 135 Cuban baseball players had left the country to play in America.
In 1959, Cuba’s patience and willingness had seemingly depleted. The 1959 revolution – led by the historic Fidel Castro – pushed America out of Cuba. The following years saw a decline for sport in the country. With the sheer number of players migrating to America to play baseball the wrong message was being conveyed throughout Cuba – to be successful you must leave your homeland. Sadly, professional sport suffered as a consequence as professionalism started to dwindle rapidly. America responded by imposing a ban on Cuban players playing in their major leagues and this prohibition would stay intact until the 1990’s.
In 1961 – two years after the success of the revolution – The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) was established. The target was to increase national participation in sport. However, little did Cuba know that INDER would go on to do wonderful things not only for the wellbeing of the island, but also the country’s economy.