Athletes Who Left Cuba Triumph Defending the Flag of Other Countries

Cuban athletes Roger Valentín Iribarne, Orlando Ortega, Arialis Gandulla, Reynier Mena and Yulenmis Aguilar. Collage (Instagram)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 18 July 2023 — Roger Valentín Iribarne achieved a personal mark this Sunday in the 110 meters in the hurdles with a time of 13.21 seconds in the Diamond League held in Silesia, Poland. The gold medal won by this Cuban for the Portuguese club Benfica is a reflection of the athletes who have left the Island and are achieving their goals in other countries, such as the hurdler Orlando Ortega, the sprinters Arialis Gandulla and Reynier Mena and the javelin thrower Yulenmis Aguilar.

Valentín’s sports development in Benfica has been upward. In the Diamond League he presented himself as the world leader of the 60 meters with hurdles after timing 7.59 seconds in Lisbon last January. In this way, he also surpassed the personal best record that he had achieved with Cuba in the indoor world championship held in Birmingham in 2018.

In September 2021, Valentín Iribarne asked for his dismissal from the Island’s national athletics team. There was no motivation for the 26-year-old, whose best mark had been 13.39 seconds. One of the last students of Professor Santiago Antúnez Contreras, the same coach who prepared the Olympic champions Anier García (Sydney 2000) and Dayron Robles (Beijing 2008), he got tired of the poor training conditions and the delays in state support.

This hurdler found the conditions to develop his potential in the Benfica club, so he made contact with them. In Cuba, the athletics crisis was notorious. “A selection that included two Olympic finalists in Atlanta 1996 and in London 2012 did not present an athlete in Tokyo 2020,” published Play-Off Magazine a few months after Valentín settled in Portugal. “To get an idea of the magnitude of the event, the last time Cuba did not qualify an athlete in 110 meters with hurdles to the Olympics was in Rome 1960. A streak of more than 60 years has been broken.”

“The club took care of all the procedures for us to get here,” Valentín said about his arrival at Benfica and that of Reynier Mena on the YouTube and Facebook program For Cuba and the World. “We didn’t have to pay anything.” Unlike the Island’s sports authorities, the Portuguese club gave him a home, food and everything he needed for training. The young man recognizes the work of his coach but rules out defending Cuba in an international event.

Orlando Ortega escaped during the Moscow Athletics World Cup in 2013 and prior to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. This natural athlete from Artemis was considered to be the successor of medalist Dayron Robles, who also left the Island to settle in Monaco.

Ortega closed 2020 with an unprecedented double in the Spanish indoor championships played in Orense, Galicia, after winning both the 60 meters and the 60-meter hurdles. This ranked him as one of the best athletes in Spain that year.

This runner-up in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, bronze in the Qatar 2019 World Cup and in Berlin 2018, is recovering from an operation for a rupture in his tendon and hopes to be back next year.

Reynier Mena, who in Cuba was a legend, arrived in Portugal at the same club as Roger Valentín. In less than a year he showed his ability on the track. During his July 2022 demonstration at La Chaux de Fonds, this sprinter broke the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters flat with a time of 9.99 seconds, and in the 200 meters he recorded 19.63 seconds.

Mena requested sports leave in 2021 on the Island, and since it was announced, he has confirmed to 14ymedio that his goal was to “continue training in the sport.” Last May he reaffirmed his good level at the Citta Di Savona International Meeting with his best time of the season, 19.95 seconds in the 200-meter test, surpassing Yancarlos Martínez (20.44 seconds).

During an indoor event in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, the Portuguese-nationalized Cuban sprinter Arialis Gandulla won the flat 60 meters with a time of 7.18 seconds, making her the third athlete with the best record of the year.

Meanwhile, the javelinist Yulenmis Aguilar was expelled from the Cuban national team in 2018. That was the “prize” she received after obtaining the bronze medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Colombia. They simply told her that “they didn’t count on her for the next season.”

Aguilar suffered a lot because of this decision. Her sporting life became “an ordeal,” and the injuries she had in her knees, shoulders and elbows forced her to retire for five months. “I didn’t want to know anything about the sport. I went into a depression and began to gain a lot of weight,” she told La Voz de Galicia.

She contacted coach Raimundo Fernández, who runs the A Coruña School of Javelinists and traveled to Spain. “Her first six months here were an ordeal of physiotherapists, doctors and rehabilitators,” Fernández stressed.

Yulenmis Aguilar recovered and last year set a record for Spain in javelin throwing with 64.17 meters, a mark that placed her as sixth in the world ranking. Her desire is to compete for the country in which she found support to recover.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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