How Cuba's revolution made it an Olympic power

August 17, 2016

With the highest record of Olympic medals in Latin America, Cuba owes its sports achievements to its socialist revolution.

The devastating US blockade on Cuba, which has lasted for more than 50 years and includes restrictions on the nation's sporting industry, has not stopped the island from becoming the most successful Latin American country in Olympics history.

Historically speaking, Cuba is by far and away the Latin American leader in the Olympics: 209 medals in total, 79 gold.

This unique historical achievement for a country of just over 11 million people is the result of policies following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The revolutionary government spent millions on funding sports schools in the hope of producing professional athletes able to wear the Cuban flag with pride.

Since the very first Olympic Games in Paris 1900 up until Rome 1960 — just before the US imposed its blockade — Cuba had won 12 medals. In contrast, from then until Rio 2016, the small island nation has won a staggering 197 medals.

In particular, Cubans have dominated boxing with 67 medals, athletics with 40 and even judo with 35.

The physical education system in Cuba, prior to the revolution led by Fidel Castro, was unable to attract the participation of the nation's masses. Professional athletes were mostly made up of a privately-educated privileged few. Cuba had very few professionals and teams competing on the international level.

In 1928, Cuba inaugurated a Physical Education National Institute, which was forced to close just four years later. It eventually reopened in 1948, but the body suffered from severe financial restraints and failed to achieve any of its aims. Equipment was underfunded, the quality of coaching and teaching was poor and students had to pay to be admitted to the schools.

After the rebels entered Havana on January 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation's sports practice. This resulted in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.

In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly.

The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.

The success of Cuba's sports teams is not just measured in Panamerican and Olympic success. More than 7000 Cuban trainers, teachers, technicians and researchers have closely worked with sports delegations in more than 50 countries on solidarity missions.

“Sports in our country is not an instrument of politics, but sports in our country itself is a consequence of the Revolution,” said Fidel Castro during a welcoming ceremony for Cuban athletes who participated in the Central American and Caribbean Games on June 29, 1996.

Following the revolution, the US government began a campaign of destabilisation against Cuba, resulting in a commercial and economic blockade that was in full swing by 1962.

The blockade affected all aspects of Cuba's economic and cultural life, and the nation's sports industry was not spared. The US blockade was responsible for millions of dollars in losses that may have been generated by the industry, but it also placed harsh restrictions on Cuban athletes.

As an example, Cuban baseball players are the only nationality in the world that must first renounce their citizenship should they want to compete professionally in the US or Puerto Rico.

At the same time, US athletes are banned from training in Cuba and are unable to take part in any international competition organised by the Cuban government.

The US State Department, for example, denied visa requests to Cuban athletes in 2007 when they tried to enter the country. From 2002 until 2004, more than 60 Cuban athletic directors and teachers were denied entry to the US.

Cuba is also unable to import sports equipment and materials from the US, instead relying on Asian markets where import costs are higher.

[Reprinted from TeleSUR English.]

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