By John Mettam
"Cuban athletes have stunned their larger, richer neighbours", the International Herald Tribune reported in its coverage of last month's Pan American Games.
In number of participants and countries represented, the Pan American Games are second only to the Olympics. In 1991, 5310 athletes from 39 countries attended. The US sent 640 athletes; the Cuban team numbered about the same.
Cuba had hoped for 75 gold medals. It won 140, 10 more than the US. This was the first US loss at the games in 40 years.
Despite enormous difficulties caused by the US economic blockade, Cuba was able to organise and conduct the games. Twenty-one new sporting facilities were constructed and 46 others remodelled. More than 300,000 workers, permanently employed and temporary volunteer labour, worked long hours to make the games a success.
Among the volunteers were Ana Fidelia Quirot and Alberto Juantorena. Quirot later won the 400 and 800 metres double in record-breaking times. Juantorena, vice-president of the Cuban National Institute of Sport, was a star of the 1976 Olympics, where he also took out the 400 and 800 metres double.
Cuba was expected to do well in track and field, baseball, weight-lifting and boxing, its traditional strengths. Surprises were its defeat of world champion US teams in women's basketball and men's water polo, and its gold medal successes in canoeing, kayaking, swimming and diving — sports not usually associated with Cuba.
There should be no surprise at this success. Article 38 of the constitution declares: "The state guides, promotes and develops physical culture and sports in all their manifestations as a means of education and contribution to the integral formation of the citizens".
Throughout the island posters declare, "El deporto un derecho del pueblo" — Sport is the right of the people.
Physical coordination is developed in all children from an early age. School children are encouraged to participate in sport — without neglecting their studies.
There is massive participation throughout the island at all levels. Alberto Juantorena explained to the International Herald Tribune, "The goal is to develop a sports system that helps improve the health of our citizens".
Some US athletes were airlifted daily to and from Miami, and US authorities insisted that US visitors to the games be accommodated aboard a cruise ship anchored in Havana harbour.