Ivan Garcia, 7 August 2016 — A couple of months ago under a frightening morning sun, the team of Cuban athletes who will compete in the next Olympic Games were training on the deteriorated synthetic track of the Pan American Stadium, east of Havana, under the watchful eye of a dozen trainers, with stopwatches around their necks while, taking notes on their tablets.
In a corner of the track, in the shade, as if escaping the sweltering heat, Dayron Robles was training in headphones and with his inseparable signature plain glasses on.
The story of Robles, since winning the gold medal eight years ago at the Beijing Olympics, has enough material to make a soap opera.
He left the national team due to dissatisfaction with late payments and enrolled in a European athletics club. In the international media he complained about the failures of the Cuban Athletics Federation, he tried to found a private school for hurdlers and competed on his own in some athletic meetings in Europe, America and Asia.
But he never regained the standard of the past. It seems a long time has passed since then, when Robles, with his technique almost perfect, tackled the hurdles as if he were singing.
Then in the forecasts the gold medal was a given. Eight years later, he returns to compete under the national flag. But his chances of medaling are limited. He rarely competes due to physical ailments and his chances in Rio are a mystery. To reach the semifinals would be a feat. Dayron’s star has waned.
At 29, Robles should have enough gas to shine. But he has switched off and only with a stroke of luck could he recover from the athletic slump. In the modern, methodical, expensive and scientific sport, there is very little room for surprises.
Forecasting the 110 metre hurdles is lunacy, because the absence of major American stars such as Aries Merritt, David Oliver and Jason Richardson, who were eliminated in the US trials and the non-participation of Sergei Shubenkov, banned with the Russian athletics team, opens the doors for another Cuban, Orlando Ortega, who plans to compete for Spain.
Ortega, next to the Jamaican Omar McLeod, French Dimitri Bascou and the new American star Devon Allen must fight for gold. Dayron Robles, I fear, will be an unwelcome guest.
There are other medal chances in Cuban athletics. The pole vaulter Yarisley Silva aims for gold. Competitive as anyone, she will have the rivalry of Brazilian Fabiana Murer, who competes on home soil, with a couple of Greeks and Americans.
Denia Caballero, in discus, should take a medal. This year she is in the shadow of the bullet-proof Croatian Sandra Perkovic. But in the World Championships last year in China she defeated her.
The triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo is another unknown. He has not competed in the current season and his performance in Rio de Janeiro can’t be predicted. In full form he is a secure medal candidate. In cotton wool, I suppose, he will travel to Copacabana.
But it is not in athletics that they have the best chances for gold medals. As always, boxing is the key sport that raises Cuba to the medal podium, or in case of bad performances, places it in a position between places 25th and 30th.
The official forecast of the Cuban delegation is to rank among the top 20 nations in the final standings. Gone are those days in which the Greater Antilles stood among the top ten.
Anyway, the fists of our fighters are an essential factor for a good performance. I bet, despite the participation of medium level professionals in boxing, that Cuba can achieve three to four gold medals and at least three silver or bronze.
Other possibilities of gold medals also come in the combat sports. The legendary Mijain Lopez can top his sporting career with a third title in the superheavy division of Greco-Roman wrestling. In achieving it, his feat would be at the level of epic wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, that mammoth who trained carrying bushes in Russian Siberia.
Wrestling can give us a medal. But not gold. Judo, which was in decline, has a chance of a medal with Idalys Ortiz. The rest has less chance. But beware, the standard of Cuban judo can bring pleasant surprises.
The secret weapon amongst the 120 Cuban athletes who will compete in Rio will be Rafael Alba, in taekwondo. He is a world champion and has a great chance to win the gold metal.
In other sports the chances are slim, not to say almost none. Cuba should be positioned between 15th and 20th place. Being optimistic, it could achieve six or seven gold medals and six to nine silver and bronze.
Perhaps we can better the performance of London 2012 with five gold, three silver and six bronze medals for a total of fourteen. But I’m not so sure. It is more reasonable that the performance will resemble that of Montreal 1976, when thirteen medals were obtained in total.
As in almost all indices, Cuba has regressed. Sport is no exception.
Martí Noticias, August 5th 2016.
Translated by: Araby