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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 13:37 GMT
Cuba's proud boxing tradition
Cuba's boxers dominate the amateur boxing world
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By Daniel Schweimler in Cuba

It is now 30 years since Cuba's boxers burst onto the world scene - winning their first gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

They've gone on to dominate the world amateur sport, regularly taking the majority of gold medals at Olympic Games and World Championships.

But Cuba is a small country with little money, its world beaters cycling to training sessions wearing frayed tracksuits. So what is the secret of Cuba's boxing success?

I spent a lot of time in Moa, in the far north-east of Cuba, looking out at the bay.

It was beautiful, probably the only beautiful thing in this ragged nickel-mining town with its ugly Soviet-style housing and scarred landscape.

One-hotel town

I was staying at the only hotel in town, the Miraflores.

I'd like to say it had seen better days but I'm not sure it had.

In any other country Sarbelio Fuentes would be a professional by now. He'd be driving an expensive car and would probably be dripping in gold jewellery

The food was dire and only hunger and the lack of any kind of alternative forced me to eat it.

As I picked at my lumpy mashed potato, at least that's what I think it wasn't, the Cuban national boxing team came into the restaurant for their lunch.

There were about 15 of them, mostly black, of all different weights but all wearing their red, white and blue tracksuits, some a little grubby and frayed around the edges.

Some wore baseball caps and they joked and chatted like a group of schoolboys on an outing.

But between them these men held a sackful of Olympic medals. They picked up seven of the 12 gold medals on offer at last year's World Amateur Boxing championships in Belfast.

Will to win

This was the reason I'd come to Moa, to try to find out how Cuba, a small country with few resources, could year after year keep producing some of the world's great boxers.

But its sporting success has not just been confined to boxing.

Guillermo Ridondeaux Ortiz
Guillermo Ridondeaux Ortiz won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

Cubans regularly take the top prizes on the athletics track, in volleyball and in the national passion, baseball. I was convinced that what applied to Cuba's boxing success would also apply to other sports.

I began by talking to Sarbelio Fuentes, the national coach. He didn't give much away and like all sports coaches spoke about hard work, commitment and the will to win.

Next I spoke to Mario Kindelan, the reigning Olympic and World Amateur lightweight champion.

An unassuming young man who, when I told him I was from London, only wanted to talk about the London Eye, the huge ferris wheel by the River Thames he'd been on a brief visit to when in the city.

Staying amateur

In any other country he'd be a professional by now, surrounded by agents, managers, trainers, publicity people and beautiful women.

He'd be driving an expensive car and would probably be dripping in gold jewellery.

The boxing success obviously serves a political purpose in that Cuba's young, healthy sportsmen and women provide an advert on the world stage for its communist system

Here in Moa, he was just part of the team. The boxers were fighting against regional champions at an outdoor stadium in front of a passionate and noisy crowd.

Judges and doctors sat at rickety wooden tables around the ring, spectators paid just a few cents to see the biggest attraction of the year in this remote town.

A far cry from the razzmatazz and multi-million dollar deals being done in trying to bring together professional heavyweights, such as Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

When President Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 he promised sport and education for all.

He's held to that promise and the Cuban state puts a great deal of effort into providing training and facilities.

It obviously serves a political purpose in that Cuba's young, healthy sportsmen and women provide an advert on the world stage for its communist system.

Mike Tyson
Cuban boxers may never earn as much as professionals such as Mike Tyson

But there is undoubtedly a passion for sport in Cuba and long before the revolution the country had a rich boxing history.

Names like Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan, world beaters long before President Castro came along, can still excite an intense debate among any group of Cuban men gathered on the street corner for a game of dominoes and a glass or two or rum.

Every town and village, especially in the sugar-growing east of the country, has its own punch bag and favourite local fighters.

Talent spotting

All Cuban children go to school and it's there that their potential talent as a baseball player, athlete or boxer is spotted.

From the age of 12, talented youngsters are sent to special schools where their skills are nurtured and developed.

What is $5m compared to five million Cubans who love me?

Olympic gold heavyweight winner Teofilo Stevenson
They pass through a very competitive youth scheme and all along the top trainers, led by the ever-vigilant national coach Sarbelio Fuentes, are keeping an eye on the aspiring talent. Few, if any, slip through the net.

As amateurs, Cuban boxers are rewarded with prestige, the opportunity to travel and on retirement, perhaps a car.

When the three-times Olympic gold heavyweight winner Teofilo Stevenson was asked why he didn't succumb to offers to defect to the United States and become a professional, he replied: "What is $5m compared to five million Cubans who love me?"

The next generation

After a career fighting for their country, and not much else, most Cuban boxers stay in the sport, either as administrators or trainers.

And that way the knowledge and experience is passed down to the next generation of sportsmen.

That next generation is pummelling away at punch bags in youth gyms all over Cuba.

One of the most prestigious is the Rafael Trejo - a courtyard surrounded by crumbling buildings in the heart of Old Havana.

All of Cuba's top boxers in recent years have passed through here.

Boxing, where two individuals battle it out in the ring, in Cuba is a team sport.

The boxers grow up together, train and travel together and, of course, fight one another, often meeting tougher opponents in their national and regional championships than they do in the Olympics.

I asked one young boxer, training at the Rafael Trejo gym, about his hopes for the future.

Without giving the question a moment's thought he replied: "To make the national youth squad, then the national squad, win an Olympic gold medal and become world champion."

All young sports people in gyms around the world would have similar answers. But I suspect that this young boxer, from a small village in eastern Cuba, may well fulfil his ambition.

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Americas
Timeline: Cuba
20 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
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