Cuba with sporting chances: Mike Rowbottom reports from Havana on the pride and procedures which have kept a beleaguered nation very much in contention

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The Independent Online
THE spectators, predominantly students, have leaned their bicycles against the rails surrounding the outdoor basketball court. Students are not the only cyclists in Havana. Given the scarcity of oil and petrol in their country, all the capital's citizens have been encouraged to pedal where possible - and in the hectic city streets, nowhere is off limits as they weave perilously among battered and invariably accelerating Ladas.

The teams the young people have come to watch - Industriales and Equipo Havana - are old rivals, and the match is played and witnessed with a furious intensity. None appears to be taking the proceedings more to heart than the Industriales coach, a grizzled man in bright orange tracksuit trousers, who becomes physically convulsed at each turn of fortune for his side.

While the coach's behaviour says something about the seriousness with which Cubans approach their sport, the circumstances in which the match is being played evidence the problems facing an economy which has lost all its old socialist trading partners and now finds itself increasingly beleaguered by the trade embargo imposed 30 years ago by its neighbours 70 miles across the Florida Keys, an embargo which was extended nine days ago when Congress forbade all subsidiaries of United States companies worldwide from selling goods to Cuba.

The ration cards which were first issued in the early 1960s, and which became almost an irrelevance in the late 1970s and early 80s, are now necessary items again, and not just for the poor sections of society. There are queues for bread, eggs, beans, rice. The best food is reserved for tourists, who can pay in precious dollars, a currency not available to the general population.

Against this harsh background, from the point of view of morale, sport becomes more important. The streets were deserted during extensive television coverage of the Olympics, where Cuba excelled themselves to finish fifth, taking all but one of the boxing golds, winning the baseball and finishing the athletics programme with two golds - through Javier Sotomayor in the high jump and Maritza Marten in the discus - a silver in the men's 4 x 400 metres, and bronze in the men's 4 x 100m, discus and women's high jump. But economic difficulties also make sport more difficult.

'This is supposed to be a championship game,' Tomas Herrera, the national basketball commissioner and former high-performance national coach said as he sat at the court-side. 'We don't have the scorekeeping system because there is no power. But we are playing. We have a problem with getting shoes. But we are playing. We have a problem with the basketballs. We used to play with new ones. Not any more. We have to make the best out of the boards behind the nets, even though they are cracked. But sport has not stopped, and that is the most important thing.'

As the match finishes, with Industriales the winners, 92-89, the grizzled coach is beside himself with fury. It transpires that his team have been defeated - on aggregate, by just one point, having lost to their opponents by four points earlier in the series. Win or lose, the coach had decided to retire on medical grounds; that earlier defeat had sent his blood pressure down.

In opening the sixth athletics World Cup here just over a week ago, Primo Nebiolo, president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, expressed something of the admiration which Cuba's recent sporting exploits have engendered. 'It is incredible,' he said, 'that a country with a population of only 10 million inhabitants can achieve so much success, outclassing many countries twice its size and with double its population.'

Part of the answer to that implied question lay in another part of the Estadio Panamericano from where the Italian was making his address, a corridor housing an exhibition of Cuban athletics memorabilia. Among the photographs - 'Pepe Barrientos romps to a world record in the 100 metres' - and Olympic medals donated by home athletes, there stands an item dated 26 November 1945. It is a medical report from the Athletic Commission of Havana University, attesting that its subject has had mumps, measles and appendicitis as a child. Next to it there is a photograph of an athlete: a slim, unbearded figure, arms pumping, crossing a finish line - 'Fidel Castro ganando en 800 metres'.

The personal commitment to sport of Cuba's president has been translated into political commitment. Its manifestation lies, to take one example, in the sprawling range of facilities to the south of Havana in which the basketball match took place, a complex known as Sport City. Built, in part, two years before the Revolution, in 1957, it has since been extended and made open to all sections of the population. An estimated 10,000-15,000 people per week use the facilities, participating in about 25 different sports including volleyball, football, tennis, boxing, water polo, cycling and athletics.

Alongside, there is a sports institute from which 95 per cent of Cuba's leading competitors graduated - including boxers such as the triple Olympic champion, Teofilo Stevenson, and the current Olympic heavyweight gold medallist, Felix Savon, as well as athletes such as Maria Colon, the 1980 Olympic javelin champion, and Sotomayor.

A small, shabby office in the main arena, its bare aspect only partially relieved by two portraits of Che Guevara and three rather sad looking pot plants, houses another graduate of the institute: Alberto Juantorena, Olympic 400 and 800m champion of 1976, Cuba's vice-president of Physical Education and Recreation, IAAF committee member and national hero.

The commitment which characterised his running is now directed towards co-ordinating a sporting and recreational policy which involves Cuban individuals from the cradle to the grave; although in the aftermath of overseeing a major international athletics event, even the man who was known in his prime as 'El Cabailo' (The Horse) appeared to have slowed to a trot.

'I think I would prefer to run the 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500m and marathon at the Olympics than organise a World Cup,' he said with a wry smile, easing his long legs out in front of him. An explanation of Cuba's sporting prowess nevertheless presented no problem for him. 'It is very easy,' he said. 'Because we pay a lot of attention to sport from a very early age. We have a good base to our pyramid.'

One of the first blocks in that base is a programme, cultivated in the last three years, of developing the co-ordination of even young babies. There is a 45-day plan for three-month-old children, which involves a range of elements from massage, to improve circulation, to exercises such as holding a child's legs, wheelbarrow-style, and getting them to move forward on their arms.

At the other end of the age- range there are now Grandparents Clubs in each local neighbourhood, where the elderly are encouraged to exercise and socialise. The emphasis is on mass-participation in sport for all ages; when that comes to the fun-runs, which are organised regularly, Juantorena is clear where his duty lies.

'It would be easy to sit here and phone people up and say, 'Tomorrow you run five kilometres'. No. You go to the street and run with the people. Last year I went to a municipality in the mountains, called Buey Arriba, and there were 10,000 people who ran behind me, including the mayor of the city.' He smiles at the memory, and makes a snaking motion with his hand.

Juantorena has been pied- pipering his fellow Cubans through the sporting landscape for seven years now. His ambition lies in a more specific area - to be a coach who moulds an Olympic champion. 'But I don't have the kind of time to do it,' he says with a shrug. 'They give me a hat and I have to wear it.'

Those who are free to concentrate on developing individual talents will school promising youngsters here as intensively as coaches anywhere in the world. But the rewards for success in Cuba are not to be compared with those received from almost any other country you could name. After winning his Olympic gold medal, Sotomayor is reported to have received a fridge.

'There are no privileges,' Junatorena says. 'There is no money. Only the recognition of our people. Any prize-money which our athletes earn goes back into the general sports budget.'

He professes no regrets that he has not been able to earn large amounts of money that athletes with small fractions of his talent have accrued. 'I like my life,' he says. 'I am proud to be Cuban, especially at this time when we are fighting to defend our dignity, our flag and our socialist system. I really believe that.'

Cubans, he adds, are good fighters; and he is not simply referring to their deeds in the boxing ring. 'It is a very high quality of our people, that they like difficult situations to face. It is a sort of challenge.'

The posters along the road to Sport City reiterate that message for the benefit of the passing citizen: Cuba no vacila; esta firme; esta decidida a luchar. Cuba is not hesitating; it is firm; it has decided to fight.

(Photograph omitted)