Wednesday, 7 December 2011

‘We prepare athletes for sport – and life’

President Raul Castro with 2008 Cuban Olympic team
Morning Star sports editor Greg Leedham talks to Cuban ex-110m hurdler Emilio Valle and Cuban junior athletics coach Alfredo Dijhigo. From today's Morning Star.

Emilio Valle and Alfredo Dijhigo attract a lot of attention on an otherwise uneventful and very blustery autumn afternoon as I take them to see the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

Walking along the Greenway path that straddles the site, Valle, a successful 110 metres hurdler who narrowly missed out on a medal at the Atlanta Olympics, and Dijhigo, a coach with Cuba’s junior athletics team, are quickly swamped by local teenagers keen to know more about these two men whose colourful Cuban national team uniforms cut through the dreariness of the weather.

The scene is the kind that Olympic organisers dream of — role model athletes inspiring and engaging local children. The pair, visiting London on a cultural and athletics exchange organised by Maurice Sharp of the Hercules Wimbledon Athletics Club, are worthy of the hype.

Valle and Dijhigo work with Cuba’s young athletes from the ages of 14 to 19, preparing them for hopefully successful careers with the senior team. It is a tough job — both earn around $30 a month and they struggle with equipment shortages due to the US blockade of their country, but they stay remarkably upbeat nonetheless.

This is partly due to the fact that, with Dijhigo aged 53 and Valle 44, the blockade has been in place before they were born. It is a way of life, just as struggle against great odds is a part of the Cuban experience.

The Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union also ushered in an age of acute austerity even by Cuban standards. Scrimping on sporting equipment was a necessity yet the Caribbean island still thrived on the Olympic stage.

Rigorous planning and ingenuity in making meagre funds go far has been essential to their success, explains Dijhigo back at the Morning Star offices.

“For us discipline is very important,” he says. “It’s possible that we don’t have the same economy as other countries, where development may be better. But the intention and the way we see life — it is the same.”

The willingness of former Cuban athletes to give back to the system that created them is also key. “He (Emilio) was my student, one of my athletes,” Dijhigo explains.

“When he was working in a physical education he was my athlete. Now we are working together as coaches. I gave him my experience. Now he must pass on his experience. We must transmit our experience and we cannot break the chain.”

A few Cuban athletes, such as flyweight boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa who won gold at Athens 2004, have broken that chain by defecting to the United States.

Dijhigo is phlegmatic about those who leave, though he laments that the country’s youth will no longer be able to benefit from their experience.

“If some athletes want to go professional — OK, no problem,” he says. “Only we never stop working. We never stop preparing athletes.”

He expands on his philosophy. “Sport is like the discipline of life. If you obey the discipline of life you can be, you can do better, you can offer more. You can offer more and also you cannot be selfish — it is not only for you.

“You should be grateful to the ancestor, the people who came before you, who give to you all that you received, and now you are offering.”

Cuba have won 194 medals in total at summer Olympics, with 100 of these coming in boxing and athletics. The country is broadening its horizons though, Dijhigo explains, despite incredible logistical issues when it comes to acquiring equipment.

“In cycling, we are getting better. But the bicycles we want to buy are from the United States, which is very close,” he explains. “But we have to buy from another place. We cannot buy from Mexico as the companies are owned by the US companies. We have to, for example, get a Jamaican to go to Mexico and buy a bicycle and bring it to Cuba after going back through Jamaica.

“We have one bicycle for every two or three athletes — a direct effect of the blockade.”

Such struggle would provoke bitterness in many, but not in Dijhigo nor Valle, whose joviality transcends his lack of English.

Valle competed against the likes of Britain’s Colin Jackson in his heyday — and has fond memories of competing at the top in an event in which Cuba now has the Olympic champion in Dayron Robles.

“I competed against athletes from many countries, but we were all friends,” Valle recalls fondly. “We may have a different system or way of life, but we would talk, be friends, no problem.”

As the duo depart, I am told that part of the schedule for their short trip is to take some training sessions with athletes from Sharp’s club and it reminds me of Dijhigo’s earlier remark, “We not only prepare athletes but a person who can be a good person in society.”

Valle and Dijhigo’s actions show that these are not mere words.

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