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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 January, 2004, 17:57 GMT
Cuba's pitch for 2012 Olympic Games

Stephen Gibbs
BBC Correspondent, Havana

How many of us know that Cuba is bidding to host the 2012 Olympic games? Apparently, even the Cubans themselves are largely unaware of it.

Cuban sports fans
Cuba is proud of its strong amateur athletic tradition

Every day my morning paper is delivered by one of my neighbours.

Elia is a communist party member and keen sports fan. I would have thought that she, of all people, would have been aware that Havana is bidding for the 2012 Olympics. But when I asked her last week, I discovered she had no idea.

There's no reason why she should. She gets her news from the Cuban Government, and the Cuban Government is keeping pretty quiet about its plans to host the games.

Cuba, it struck me, may be taking its argument that the Olympics have become too commercial, to its logical extreme, by not spending any money at all to publicise the bid.

But there is one group of Cubans who do know that Havana is on the same list as London, Paris and Rio: Olympic athletes.

Olympic Stadium

The other day I decided to go and talk to them. They are easy to find, as they all live in the same place: Cuba's centre for sporting excellence, the Estadio Olympico.

The stadium which, despite the name, has never held an Olympics, is about ten minutes outside Havana. It was built for the Pan American games in 1991.

It was that year that the collapse of the Soviet Union really began to bite in Cuba. It was the end of decades of billion dollar subsidies and the beginning of what Fidel Castro euphemistically labelled Cuba's "special period".

Many Cubans thought the games would be cancelled as part of the same austerity measures that cut their weekly rations and brought many close to starvation. Instead the stadium was built, the games were hosted, and Cuba won.

Cuban men's fencing team won bronze at the Sydney Olympics
Cuba won 11 gold, 11 silver and seven bronze medals at Sydney

From a distance, it's an impressive sight. A vast clam-shaped structure sitting on a cliff overlooking the Straits of Florida.

But like many things in Cuba, it's not quiet as impressive when you see it up close. The paint is peeling. The huge floodlight towers have rusted. Precarious cracks are opening up in the grandstand.

Inside the main entrance is a dreary lobby. Directly in front, and unusually for a centre of sporting excellence, is the smoking area.

Even after a year living in Cuba, I was a bit surprised to see a man wearing the national squad tracksuit...and smoking a cigar.

Walk on a little further and you come out into the blazing sunshine and the stadium itself.

Cuba may be a developing country, but its sport is truly first world
Jorge Garcia, Cuban athlete

There's grass growing in the main track, dangerously little sand in the landing pit for the high jump, and some of the best athletes in the world just lolling around.

Jorge was having an evening jog. He won bronze in the Sydney Olympics 400 metre relay. He was well aware of Havana's Olympic bid, and saw no reason why it shouldn't succeed.

"Why not?" he said. "Cuba may be a developing country, but its sport is truly first world."

He's right. Cuba after all has come in the top ten in the last three Olympics.

But being a good guest is one thing. Surely being a good host is another.

Jorge has seen the scale of the modern Olympics. Could he really imagine it happening here?

Will to succeed

"The thing you have to remember," he told me, "is that when Cuba wants to organise something, it can. If it needs to move a million people out of the way of a hurricane, or into Revolution Square to hear one of Fidel Castro's speeches, it just does it."

The whole culture of Cuban sport is completely different...No superstars, just ordinary people who are very good at sport
Roberto Despaigne, Cuban wrestler

The image of thousands of rich American or Japanese sports fans being similarly herded around in 1950s school buses was an interesting one.

Suddenly Jose, the director of the stadium chipped in: "The developing world has never held an Olympics," he said. "Cuba has earned that right."

The conversation began to get drowned out by the sound of salsa music. A band was rehearsing in one of the changing rooms. I went a little closer to have a look.

Cuban athlete
Cuba's athletes are among the only people aware of the 2012 bid

The band, it turned out, was made up of sporting stars. They rehearse in the stadium because none of their apartments has enough space.

On percussion, was Roberto, a wrestler. He won a bronze medal in the 2002 Pan American games.

"The whole culture of Cuban sport," he said, "is completely different to that anywhere else in the world. No superstars, just ordinary people who are very good at sport."

It was difficult to disagree as a high jumper started paying a few chords on his electric piano.

Havana may not be a serious contender to host the Olympics, but it is making a serious point.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 January, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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