Sport on TV: Castro may spoil for a fight but his boxers aren't spoilt at all
Sunday 03 April 2011
Cuba has a proud and prolific boxing tradition, and for a small island they certainly punch above their weight. In the national academy, alongside giant posters of its great exponents of the noble art, hangs the image of Fidel Castro himself, the "champion of champions". For a man who spent 40 years giving the United States a bloody nose, it seems a fair title.
Boxing's tale of the tape is usually one of saving street urchins from a life of crime. In Kidult: Cuban Punch-Up (BBC4, Wednesday) the 11-year-old boxers at the Havana City Academy are fighting for a shot at Olympic glory but they are also prepared to go back out on the streets and fight in a different way. When Castro handed over power to his brother Raul in 2006 due to poor health, the boys were glued to his speech on TV. Cristian Martinez says that if the USA invades during this time of weakness, "we'll run out to defend our country".
As Castro himself intones: "The revolution must concentrate on sport. It is of vital importance to the country." But the sweet science is more than just nationalism, it's part of the fabric of existence in the communist state. "Cuban boxers fight for a better future," says Cristian, while his colleague Junior declares: "We Cubans are fighting from the moment we are born."
They seem to accept from an early age that life is one long, hard slugfest. They know they've got little chance of Havana cake and eating it, and wisdom has come early despite getting their ears boxed on a regular basis. Little Cristian is known as the "old man", his coach Yosvani saying, "Comrade Cristian is 70 years old and he's in the Under-12s".
They may dream of Olympic gold at London 2012, but they cannot contemplate the megabucks that would come from going professional after the Games – surely a crucial incentive in many of boxing's rags to riches stories – because to defect and fight in the United States would be a betrayal of the revolution.
Cristian's father Luis Felipe Martinez is a case in point. After winning a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he became a national hero and was given a house and car by the government. But the car broke down and the house is now dilapidated and the 55-year-old, who looks much older, is in a similar state. But while this may seem sad, it could be that capitalists like us just don't understand.
If you can duck and weave your way past the political dogma, Cuba's boxers present a curiously pure perspective in a world of sport that has become tainted by filthy lucre – none more so than the kids. Luis Felipe predicts his son will be better than him, and Yosvani says he will be champion of the world. You wouldn't argue with either of them.
* Here's a few alternative awards from the Cricket World Cup. Most surprising lucky beggar: Sachin Tendulkar, dropped four times by Pakistan in the semi-final. Most diminished legend: Muttiah Muralitharan, standing behind a mascot who was taller than him during the national anthem. Craziest looking pundit: Ajit Agarkar, with his eyes as big as saucers. And greatest Delhi belly weight loss: Paul Allott in the Sky Sports studio, and he didn't even go to the subcontinent. Perhaps we should call him Paul Not Allott.
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