Monday, 19 December 2011

Cuban Olympic legend laments the debilitating effects of US blockade

Cuban Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena talks exclusively to the Morning Star's Greg Leedham about his unrivalled track feat and what sport means for his blockaded country

Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban runner who stunned the world by winning gold in the 400m and 800m at the 1976 Olympics, talks about politics with the same bullishness with which he used to gallop around the track in his heyday.

"We cannot buy anything from the United States," he tells me, thumping his hand down on the table next to us as we chat in a dimly lit room at the HQ of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London.

The man known as El Caballo (The Horse) is referring to the 50-year-old US blockade of his homeland - a policy which permeates all activity on the island, including his day job as a parliamentarian and vice-president of the Cuban Sport Institute.

"For example, our pole-vaulters need poles, but the pole they use is produced in the United States. UCS Enterprise (who produce the poles) - we cannot buy from them."

Juantorena, now 61, proceeds to offer a detailed description of wheeling and dealing of which Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp would be proud.

"I call a friend of mine in Mexico, who was a former president of their federation. I say: 'Listen, Pedro, go to UCS, talk to them' - they are also friends of mine but I cannot trade with them directly.

"Pedro calls Jack (of UCS) and Jack sends the pole to Mexico. Pedro then takes the pole and brings it back to Guadalajara" for the 2011 Pan-American Games.

At this point, Juantorena exclaims at the ludicrousness of the situation he finds himself in on a daily basis. "My friend! What is this, my friend?"

His struggle to provide basic equipment for his country's athletes stands in stark contrast with the money Britain is able to throw at its own - £264 million worth of funding between 2009 and 2013.

Yet while time has eroded Juantorena's famous afro, his enthusiasm for the Cuban system remains, as does his belief that money is not the crucial factor in producing world-class sportsmen and women.

"Let me tell you something," Juantorena says, leaning towards me as if he is about to reveal a big secret.

"We practise sport in my country with a real lack of everything. Almost from nothing. Our infrastructure is not sophisticated. Our track and field stadium, our baseball stadium - they are not sophisticated.

"But we pay a lot of attention to physical education. It is compulsory in the schools - from primary schools through to university, and it produces athletes like a windmill." Juantorena makes a spiralling motion with his hands.

"And it never stops. Never stops, never stops. You know why? Because if you have mass participation, you have 2.5m students from primary school to university practising sport at least three times a week, and then you can sit down and qualify and see the talent, select the talent - it's easy! That's the secret of Cuban sport."

Critics argue that windmill has been malfunctioning a little of late. By their high standards, Cuba had a poor Olympics in Beijing in 2008, winning just two golds from 24 medals overall and finishing 28th in the final table.

Compare that with Athens in 2004 when Cuba won nine golds - the same number as Britain - and finished 11th overall.

Juantorena believes Beijing was merely a blip and, regardless, he says the point of Cuban sport is not medals but the overall well-being of the Cuban people.

"That's why we promote sport," he says. "Not to compete but to increase the life expectancy of people, to increase the health of the people first and as a consequence you can find the talent and you can find the medals."

It is a model driven by 78,000 physical education teachers, compared with, he says, 800 before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Such is the human investment in sport - thousands of staff working on low wages across the island - that Juantorena seems personally betrayed by those who reap the benefits of the Cuban system only to defect. How does he feel about a compatriot who is seduced by riches in the US or Europe?

"Stupid guy," he shrugs. "For me as an individual to become Olympic champion is impossible.

"I was born in Santiago de Cuba in very humble family in a very humble home, you know, and I feel sorry for them (defectors).

"Who made those athletes great stars? By themselves? From childhood they have schools, they have been supported by the municipal, by the state. The state pays everything to them.

"They think more with the pocket than with the heart - that is a fact. But let me tell you something - they are not many.

"The majority are in Cuba, fighting and leading."

One of those who had riches dangled in front of him but chose to stay in Cuba was boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who was reportedly offered as much as $5m to turn professional and fight Muhammad Ali but famously declined, saying the love of the Cuban people was more important to him.

"An example that real people don't sell their soul," Juantorena beams. "That was the guy to be."

Juantorena is as talkative an interviewee as you could ever meet, but my next question has him momentarily tongue-tied.

Would he ever accept a defector back into the Cuban team?

"He begins his response twice, breaking off mid-sentence on each occasion.

Silence briefly fills the room. After a few more seconds of reflection, he says: "In my personal opinion, I say no."

The lull provides an opportune moment to turn the conversation to his staggering feat of winning gold in the 400m and 800m gold in Montreal.

With athletes today tending to specialise in one event, his unique achievement of winning at sprint and middle distance is unlikely to be repeated.

Juantorena springs back to life at the mention of his career-defining moment.

"Nobody took into consideration the tall guy with the basketball socks," he grins. "Nobody cared about me and suddenly, boom, I kill everyone. That's a fact, that's a fact!"

Before Montreal, Juantorena specialised in the 400m until his Polish trainer Zygmunt Zabierzowski tricked him into running the 800m. He began training for the event - to help his endurance, he was told - and it was only two months before the Games that he realised Zabierzowski's plan.

"I say: 'No way, man, you crazy'," he recalls. "You know why? Because I was afraid. Because I know that the 800m was the first race. What happens if I get tired and nothing happen in 800 and nothing happen in 400?

"But he gave me the confidence, he proved to me that I can do it. And suddenly one time I was running for the first time in my life in May 1976.

"I ran 1'45.3". I say: "Caramba! I can do it!" And then psychologically I start to believe that really I can do it."

He blew away the field in the 800m final, breaking the world record in the process. Three days later, he added the 400m title. A legend was born then and it has continued to grow given that no-one has replicated his feat in the 35 years since.

Juantorena believes it is lack of ambition that could prevent someone today trumping him.

"Human beings have been proved in world history to do unbelievable things. You never know with a human being! Maybe they run 800m, 1,500m and 100m - you never know. It is difficult, but it is not impossible."

Injuries dogged Juantorena for the rest of his career, preventing him from adding to his Olympic tally, though he says his biggest regret is never winning a gold at the Pan-American Games.
His greatest challenge today is continuing to convince Cubans of the importance of sport.

He looks utterly bemused when I tell him of those on the British left who believe that sport is a distraction from more important struggles.

"Firstly, they are wrong," he says, chuckling. "The sport is a benefit for health. First to be a better citizen, to have better health. Second, sport is a good moment to socialise, to be together, to share things and to teach you to think collectively."

The Cuban programme for sport is certainly ambitious. Juantorena tells me of his country's efforts to develop cricket on the island, as well as football with the help of Fifa.

Yet his and Cuba's biggest battle remains with their superpower neighbour - a nation which, he tells me, has denied him a visa four times.

One day things will change, he believes, but only if the US approaches Cuba as equals.

"We don't need to make any move to them," Juantorena says, leaning forward in his chair and fixing me with a stern stare to emphasise his point.

"We don't need to ask them: 'Please change.' No, on the contrary they must approach us and sit down at the table, without any previous condition and we can talk about everything in life.

"Our president Raul (Castro) said to Barack Obama many times a message - let's sit down together at the table without any previous conditions. He never answered."

You sense that deep down Juantorena knows that change is unlikely to come soon.

He says Cuba will do better at London 2012 - just don't ask him to predict the number of medals they will win.

His patriotism is clear and he leaves me with a glowing endorsement of the Cuban system.

"You have many in Cuba fighting and working to improve the whole condition in every aspect in my country. I am one of them and I will die in Cuba. I will die there."

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