Reuters

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Cuban high jumper runs salsa band to while away retirement

HAVANA - The gold chain and bracelets, red Mercedes Benz and the 12-man salsa band suggest a mover and shaker of Havana nightlife, not the world’s record-holding high jumper.

Away from the track, Sotomayor finds life beyond the Olympics.
These days you are more likely to find Javier Sotomayor standing at a bar rather than leaping to clear one.

The former athlete’s band ‘salsa Mayor’ plays the matinee show on Tuesdays at the Casa de la Musica in downtown Havana, to a crowd of rhythmically gyrating dancers.

‘I’m the godfather of the band,’ Sotomayor says in an interview below the stands of Havana’s dilapidated Pan-American Stadium, as the trombone and the conga drums echo through the empty building in a warm-up for the band’s daily practice.

Sotomayor put up some of his prize money from athletics to buy instruments and his friend and former wrestler Roberto Despaigne, who plays guitar and writes the songs, selected the players, all professionals.

The salsa band is more than a hobby for Sotomayor. The athlete turned budding musical impresario is looking for a recording company while doing gigs for tourists at a hotel on one of Cuba’s sun-bathed Caribbean keys.

It has been more than a decade since the lanky Cuban made history by clearing 2.45 metres on his second attempt one summer’s day of 1993 in Spain. No athlete has come close to that mark.

‘some day they will. It’s a law of life. But there is nobody threatening the record at the moment,’ he said. The Olympic record set by American Charles Austin at the 1996 Atlanta Games stands at 2.39m. He also holds the US record of 2.40m while Sotomayor has the world indoor mark at 2.43m.

The 1.94m Sotomayor, now 36, retired in 2001 under a cloud of controversy. At the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, the athlete tested positive for cocaine and was sent home in disgrace.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro personally defended Sotomayor as a hero of Cuba’s socialist sports system and said he was the victim of bungled laboratory work.

In a controversial ruling, the international federation exceptionally reduced his suspension from two years to one and Sotomayor was able to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, coming away with the silver medal, even though he jumped only 2.32m.

Eight years earlier, he had won the Barcelona Olympics with 2.34m, a moment of joy as unforgettable as the births of his two sons.

The last time he cleared 2.40m was at the Pan-American Games in Argentina in 1995. No-one has jumped higher since.

He said injury forced his retirement, not the doping scandal.

An Achilles tendon problem hampered his performance and reduced his run-up from nine steps to seven and then just five.

‘The Cuban Federation never accepted the positive test, much less do I,’ he said.

But three months before retiring, he failed a random dope test for the banned steroid nandrolone at a meeting in Tenerife.

The IAAF never ratified the test result and he avoided getting a life ban.

He trains three times a week and plays basketball to keep in shape.

But after years of rigorous discipline and sacrifice, retirement is not easy.

‘What I miss most is competing, and even more when I see today’s marks,’ he said.

But Sotomayor’s record is never far away from him.

The number plate of his Mercedes C-180, a prize for his gold medal at the 1993 world championships in Stuttgart, ends in the digits 245.