Miércoles, 26 de Octubre de 2016
17:24 CEST.

Medals and synecdoches

Before getting to the heart of this article, I must warn the reader that I am one of those “bad patriots” who rejoice at every defeat suffered by athletes from his country in every athletic competition, because I have never believed in the Government-State-Nation-Party synecdoche, or perhaps because from a very young age I was disgusted by images of Olympic champions returning to Havana to hang their medals around the neck the dictator-for-life. Aware of my prejudices about this, I shall try to limit myself as much as possible to the statistics when discussing here the results obtained by Cuban athletes at the recent Olympic Games in Río de Janeiro.           

First, the overall calculation: Cuban athletes in Río managed to win 11 medals - five gold, two silver and four bronze - and the country ranked 18th, behind Brazil, Spain, Kenya, Jamaica and Croatia.  These represent the worst results in the last ... 44 years, even worse than the 13 medals won in Montreal (1976), which were enough to rank Cuba 8th.

The decline of sports on the Island is evident. From the zenith of Cuba's performance, achieved in Barcelona in 1992, when Cuba won 31 medals (14-6-11), the numbers have been flagging: 25 medals in Atlanta (1996); 29 in Sydney (2000); 27 in Athens (2004); 24 in Beijing (2008); and 15 in London (2012), down to 11 this year. If one looks at the numbers closely, this result is comparable only to the newly founded Republic of Cuba in the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis (USA), when a far smaller delegation, and under much more adverse conditions, won nine medals (four gold, two silver and three bronze), finishing third in the overall standings.

The Cuban Government sent 123 athletes to participate in 19 events at the Río Olympics. In St. Louis five athletes competed in two disciplines, and they all paid for their own trips, even "El Andarín" Carvajal, who almost managed to win the gold in the marathon. But that was another era. 

The regime's press, which suffers from chronic triumphalism, usually recites the argument of demographic proportionality, boasting about how many more medals Cuba wins (or won) proportional to its population. In practice, this is explained as follows: if the US has about 30 times the population of Cuba, each medal won by Cuban athletes is worth 30 times that won by the "Americans." In Barcelona, ​​for example, where Cuba won 31 medals, the United States would only have "matched" the results of the Island if it had been awarded 930 medals. If this specious reasoning made any sense, Fiji, Bahamas, Kosovo and Jamaica would be the world's leading athletic powers: all these countries posted, in proportion to their total populations, results far exceeding the rest of the world's – including Cuba. 

In Río many fell short, including former Olympic champions and holders of global records, winners at the Pan-American Games and prospects for whom the national press augured spectacular careers. The results were particularly dreadful with regards to team sports: in basketball, soccer, field hockey and water polo the low level of the Cuban squads prevented them from even competing in the Olympics. Does anyone remember when the men's 4 x 100 relay team rivaled that of the US and won silver medals? Or when the volleyball team mowed down the competition, boasting medals at all the competitions? Today Jamaica dominates in sprinting, and in women's volleyball countries like Senegal and Puerto Rico qualify for Río, while Cuba lives off its bygone glory.

This general decline in the nation's athletics features an even more disturbing characteristic: Cubans only win medals in individual disciplines. With the exception of a lone bronze medal in women's athletics, all the medals won in Rio were in one-to-one combat: boxing, judo and wrestling.

To make matters worse, in one of the few collective events in which Cuba had managed to qualify, men's volleyball, it lost every game. Although in this case it should be noted that its best players are in prison, in Finland, accused of having gang raped a woman.  Apparently no one had warned the carnal Cubans that in this respect the cultural mores and penal codes of the Caribbean and Scandinavia have slight differences.

The Soviet method of winning medals

The triumphs of Cuban athletes after 1968 were made possible by a combination of factors. The promotion of sports was a personal mission undertaken by Fidel Castro, to which he allocated disproportionate resources. Spending on education, housing, clothing, food, travel and gifts for the winners was generous. Given the conditions of poverty under which the rest of the population languished, these privileges sufficed for a time to ensure strong results, and loyalty to the regime. In the absence of other attractive objectives, a large number of young people committed to sports.  In this way the sector consumed a fraction of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that would have been unthinkable in any other country, because in the rest of the world funds are usually distributed more rationally, allocated to meet national needs, require parliamentary approval, and are subject to scrutiny by the press.

The strategy mimicked the Soviet method of turning out champions by concentrating State resources in certain specialties considered more "productive." To this was added the whims and idiosyncrasies of the Commander-in-Chief, who lavished resources on some while marginalizing others. In this way athletics, baseball and boxing were favored, while tennis, swimming and the equestrian sports were neglected ("bourgeois sports," said the commissioners/coaches). This class bias did not affect fencing, however, an "aristocratic" sport, if there ever was one, which did receive a lot of support, at least for some decades.

Training began in childhood, at Sports Initiation Schools (EIDEs) and ended, for the most gifted, on the national team. Boarded from Monday to Saturday, 11 months a year, the trainees received schooling (little) and many hours of training daily. The strategy had obvious propaganda purposes. Victories in international competitions served as a showcase to assert the moral and practical superiority of Communism over other political systems.

When Soviet subsidies disappeared, after 1992, and with those from Venezuela on the wane, the Cuban sports sector has shrunk to proportions more consonant with the country's GDP, and is subject to a more rational distribution of national resources.

But the economic crisis has not been the only cause of the decline. In addition to limitations of a monetary nature there are other factors: the flight of top-level athletes from the island as they are presented with other opportunities (not to mention the dozens of baseball players succeeding in the US, at least five athletes born in Cuba won medals in Río representing other countries: Azerbaijan, Turkey, Spain, Italy and the United States); the expanding horizons opened up by new activities in the private sector, reducing the allure of sports as a profession among young people; and the senility of Fidel Castro, which prevents him from handling the propaganda apparatus like he once did, and imposing his every impulse with regards to the allocation of the national budget.  The progressive drought in international triumphs is in step with the evolution of these factors.        

As Cuba's aura as a "sports power" evaporates, another cornerstone of the regime's propaganda crumbles. In recent years the poor quality of Cuban education and the deplorable state of its medical services has become evident. Its failures in sports are, perhaps, more conspicuous, because they can be measured every four years – in gold, silver and bronze. The decline of the one-party system and State economy is unstoppable, dragging the Cuban nation down with it. That's the trouble with these synecdoches.