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Despite Embargo, Cuba’s Sports Machine Churns On

June 29, 1996

HAVANA (AP) _ Cubans relish the thought of the Atlanta Games. It’s a chance to win one back from the United States, and in its own house to boot.

``Any medal we win there will be worth double,″ said Jesus Molina Hernandez, general secretary of Cuba’s athletic federation. ``Because it’s the Olympics and because it’s in the United States.″

In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Cuba won an impressive 31 medals, and its 14 golds were fifth best of the games. In Atlanta, it wants to at least match that.

At stake is national pride in a year in which relations with Washington, never good, worsened after Cuba shot down two aircraft carrying four Cuban-American exiles in February.

There are other slights to be made up for. The women’s volleyball team, a favorite in Atlanta, was stranded in the United States after President Clinton canceled direct flights to Cuba in February. More recently, Cuban sports officials protested a delay in getting U.S. permission to fly their Olympians directly to Atlanta.

``We will do nothing less than the Fatherland demands,″ declares a poster outside Molina’s office at Havana’s Pan-American Stadium, quoting Cuban patriot Jose Marti.

It won’t be easy. Cuba lost its biggest economic sponsor when the Soviet Union broke up. The 37-year-old U.S. economic embargo was strengthened after the shootdown and is taking its toll. Foreign investors have canceled projects. Cubans make ends meet with government rations of everything from rice to soap.

Cuba’s vaunted sports machine hasn’t escaped. Shortages of baseball gloves, footwear and balls _ previously provided by the Soviets _ dog sports programs. Several top-flight baseball stars have defected to the United States.

``When the Soviet Union collapsed, we lost our right arm. But we continue fighting,″ said Roberto Millan, a cycling coach watching the national team train at the Reinaldo Paseno Velodrome.

Prompted by the crisis, the government’s National Sports Institute has been told to help support itself. It now arranges commercial agreements with foreign firms and competitions, charges some media to interview and photograph its athletes, and negotiates contracts to train foreign athletes. Some athletes are allowed to wear commercial logos, while about 600 Cuban coaches are working with foreign teams overseas.

Still, sending a 170-athlete team to Atlanta will cost Cuba about $4 million _ costly for this isolated nation of 11 million people.

``The embargo is restricting our budget,″ said Mario Sotolongo Abreu, deputy director of the High Performance Training Center, Cuba’s premier sports academy.

``Going to Atlanta isn’t easy,″ Sotolongo said. ``The main thing is to represent our country, our people, with dignity.″

Complicating the task is a spate of injuries affecting several top athletes, among them world-record high jumper Javier Sotomayor, long jumper Ivan Pedroso and triple jumpers Yoelvis Quesada and Yoel Garcia. The injuries tested Cuba’s medical establishment, which is always at the service of sports.

Pedroso underwent surgery for a severe thigh muscle tear in March. Accompanied by doctors, he now is training in Spain and was named to the Olympic team Wednesday.

``He can be a medalist this summer. But we’re running against time,″ Molina said.

Sotomayor has inflammation in his jumping knee. Quesada and Garcia are nursing minor injuries, and women’s discus thrower Maritza Marten has recovered from a knee injury.

In the biggest comeback, Ana Fidelia Quirot, bronze medalist in the women’s 800 meters in Barcelona, will run the 800 and the 4x400-meter relay in Atlanta. Quirot nearly died and lost a child after a household fire in 1993.

Cuba’s longstanding dominance in amateur sports stems from Soviet-style state sponsorship and a national system of sports schools that recruits athletes as young as age 8.

Top officials are constantly informed of the progress of promising young athletes. Performance and conditioning standards are set for each age group. As athletes mature, they are assigned a team of coaches, doctors, psychologists, physiotherapists and nutritionists.

``We’re always looking for substitutes,″ said Molina, noting that officials here boldly predict 25 Cuban gold medals in the 2004 Games. ``Despite the embargo, despite the conditions the country is living in, this has allowed us to continue developing talent.″

The most promising athletes don’t have to worry about jobs or seeking corporate sponsorships; their expenses, food, clothing and shelter are all provided by the state.

At the High Performance Training Center, 11 pairs of boxers are trading punches in a large room. Coaches egg on pugilists from Cuba, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Mexico and Chile.

This system produced boxer Teofilo Stevenson in the 1970s, as well as current gold-medal favorites Felix Savon, Arnaldo Mesa, Juan Hernandez Sierra and Hector Vinent. Cuba’s boxing team again expects to dominate in Atlanta.

In all, 1,200 students live and work at the center, at a cost to the government of about $5,500 a student each year. Two days of the week are set aside for academics; one day is free.

The academy’s work is complemented by the Institute of Sports Medicine and the Institute of Sports Culture. The latter is required schooling for all trainers.

``In what other country is all (that) education free? In all sports?″ Sotolongo asked. ``We have kids from all walks of life, from peasant families, intellectual families.″

Another nerve center is the institute’s technical department at Sports City, a drab complex of stadiums, swimming pools, basketball courts and offices in Havana. Here, statistics are assembled and analyzed, performance schedules set, strategies adopted.

If an athlete turns in a disappointing performance or has a medical problem, the department, consulting with the coach, assigns investigators.

``We are a control unit,″ said Heriberto Hernandez Fernandez, a top institute official. ``We analyze why we lost, what the reasons were, look for specialists. We are going to find a solution.″

``It’s not a repressive thing,″ he added quickly.

Nurtured by the system is Cuba’s revered baseball team, which hasn’t lost an international competition since 1991 despite defections to the U.S. major leagues of such players as shortstop Rey Ordonez and pitchers Osvaldo Fernandez and Livan Hernandez. The program has been spared budget cutbacks.

Other Atlanta medal contenders include wrestlers Hector Milan and Alejandro Puerto; world champion weightlifter Pablo Lara; Eliecer Urrutia, a 22-year-old triple jumper who began in the sport only four years ago and can jump 57 feet; Driulis Gonzalez and Amarilis Savon in women’s judo; women’s long jumper Niurka Montalvo; swimmer Rodolfo Falcon; and fencer Elvis Gregory.

Winning isn’t the only thing demanded of Cuba’s athletes. Some work in their spare time as trainers for handicapped colleagues. Once past their prime, many become coaches.

``Sports for us is an example for the youth of the country,″ said the institute’s Hernandez, who criticized professionalism in athletics. ``When you belong to a (private) athletic club, you don’t reflect society.″

Sports’ influence pervades Cuban society almost as much as party politics. The emphasis on athletic prowess comes from the top. President Fidel Castro was once a baseball pitcher. Thousands of Cubans rely on the bicycle as their primary mode of transportation.

``You in the United States have to work, then you do sports,″ said Dagwell Hernandez, a Havana resident. ``We don’t have work. Sports is all we have.″

And, for those few successful enough, it’s a way to get a house, perhaps a car, simply live in relative comfort in an increasingly desperate society.

``If you’re an athlete here, you’re free,″ Hernandez said.

On a basketball court at Sports City, a boy douses the flame to mark the end of Havana’s annual Special Olympics. The athletes, many of whom competed in the world Special Olympics in New Haven, Conn., last year, are congratulated for their performances.

``I want to win, but if I cannot win, I want to be brave in trying,″ the kids chant. Then they are led in a final chorus: ``Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel! Viva! Viva! Viva!″

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