HAVANA (Reuters) - Defections have cut through their highly rated boxing squad but if Cuban officials are worried about the strength of the national team heading for the Beijing Olympics, they are certainly not saying so.
At a ceremony for the baseball squad, President Raul Castro gave the defending Olympic champions a pep talk that sounded more like their marching orders.
“All of you know what the Cuban people expect of you, and you and we know that you are going to fully achieve it,” he said at Havana’s Latinamerican Stadium.
In Cuba, good athletes are spotted and nurtured from an early age under a Soviet-style sports system instituted after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro, Raul’s older brother, into power.
The children go to special sports schools and the best end up at one of the nation’s two Centres for High Performance.
Fidel Castro regards sport, and Cuba’s success in sports traditionally regarded as American strongholds, as a vital element in his political battle with the United States.
“Go forward in the spirit of victors as in Ayacucho and Mal Tiempo,” he urged, in a reference to long-ago battles.
“With you goes our people’s love for our country,” he said in a hand-written note published on the front pages of the state-run press ahead of the Beijing Games.
With a population of 11 million people, Cuba has won 170 Olympic medals, including 65 golds. India, with an estimated population of 1.1 billion, has won just four individual golds.
Athletes in Cuba remain poorly paid amateurs, however, and most of those who defect hope to turn professional. This year the baseball, soccer, judo and boxing teams have been hit by defections.
Cuba dominated boxing at the 2004 Athens Games, winning five gold medals. But none of the five winners is back because three defected and one was kicked off the squad after attempting to flee. The other, Mario Kindelan, retired.
These losses have left Cuba with a boxing team that is young, has no Olympic experience and is going up against one of the strongest fields in Olympic history, boxing coach Pedro Roque said before a recent tournament against French boxers.
“We have completely renovated the team,” he told reporters in a sweltering Havana arena. “We can’t talk at this moment about grand goals or compare them with the Athens team.”
However, Roque said his team was talented and deep including 2005 world amateur lightweight champion Yordenis Ugas and five champions from the 2007 Pan-American Games.
“We have enough boxers for one, two or three teams,” he said. “The defections don’t affect us at all.
“It’s a young team but they are developed. They’ve been participating in our system since they were eight or nine years old and these boys have more than 200 fights.”
Because sport was regarded as a way to bring glory to the nation and its socialist system, much as in the Soviet Union and its East European allies during the Cold War, defections were not taken lightly by Cuba, said Uva de Aragon, Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami.
“The government sees it (defecting) as a blow to their image and they see it as treason,” she said.
Cuba’s baseball team will be among the favorites for the gold medal at the August 8-24 Games and the track and field team are led by 110-metre hurdles world-record holder Dayron Robles.
Cuba has tried to counter the allure of big money by instilling in its athletes a strong sense of patriotism and offering financial bonuses to those who return from international competitions.
The money was small compared to what they could make as professionals but for most it was enough to keep them home, said Milton Jamail, author of the book “Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball.”
“Most Cuban players really do want to go home. Their families are there, their friends are there. They don’t want to go a new country and have to start a new life,” he said.
However, defections are unlikely to be a big problem in these Olympics, where fleeing athletes would have to escape Chinese authorities sympathetic to their socialist ally.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Robert Woodward