BY LINDA ROBERTSON | Miami Herald
During Opening Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, former Cuban sports heroes Teofilo Stevenson, Javier Sotomayor and Ana Fidelia Quirot sat together inside Bird’s Nest Stadium.
When the Cuban team marched onto the track, the three stars sprung to their feet and joined in the roar from the crowd, one of the loudest for any team in the parade of nations.
“I felt the excitement when the U.S. and Chinese teams marched in, but it was also electrifying to see this little island nation receive such respect and enthusiasm,” said Jose Rodriguez, who sat with Stevenson, Sotomayor and Quirot. Rodriguez is executive director of USA Judo, a Miamian and a native of Cuba.
But the respect accorded Cuba wasn’t matched by its performance in Beijing. Cuba had its worst Olympic showing in 40 years, winning only two gold medals and finishing 28th in the medal standings. Cuba is accustomed to being in the Top 10.
Cuba did not win a single gold in boxing. The baseball team lost the gold medal game to South Korea, and the women’s volleyball team was upset by the United States.
The decline of Cuba as a sports power is a reflection of the dilapidated state of the island and the infirm Fidel Castro 50 years after his revolution. Sports continues to limp along despite the fading health of its No. 1 fan and shrinking budgets dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Riddled by defections, Cuba has nonetheless remained competitive on the world stage. But its success rate, which was so disproportionate to its size during Castro’s heyday, is no longer the strong morale-boosting propaganda tool that it was.
“The Beijing Olympics were an embarrassment for Cuba,” said Roberto Quesada, a former trainer for the Cuban boxing team now coaching in Miami. “That could mark the beginning of the end. I don’t know if they can recover in these difficult economic times.”
The Games concluded with a humiliating incident for Cuba when tae kwon do athlete Angel Matos was disqualified during his match, kicked the referee in the face, spat on the mat and was banned from the sport.
Castro defended Matos, saying the match was fixed. He said boxers were “condemned beforehand” and cheated by judges.
In the same essay, Castro wrote that defections have hurt and blamed “the repugnant mercenary actions” of pro boxing promoters.
He promised a reassessment of “every discipline, every human and material resource that we dedicate to sport.”
“Cuba has never bought an athlete or judge,” Castro wrote, adding that Cubans need to brace themselves for the 2012 London Games. “There will be European chauvinism, judge corruption, buying of brawn and brains and a strong dose of racism.”
Castro handed the presidency to brother Raúl in February but retains influence in deciding priorities. The few photos of Castro that are published give a clue to where the heart of the old sports nut still lies: He’s wearing a red, white and blue Adidas track suit.
Castro was such a baseball aficionado he used to show up at practices and dictate the starting lineup. Successor Raúl may not be as obsessed, but Vice President Jose Ramon “El Gallego” Fernandez, a staunch friend of Fidel who defeated invaders at the Bay of Pigs, is head of Cuba’s Olympic Committee, ensuring a pro-sports voice.
Alberto “El Caballo” Juantorena, track star of the 1976 Games, is senior vice president of INDER, the Cuban sports ministry. He is a charismatic figure, hugely popular.
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