Cuban Schools Lagging in Sports

In Cuba there is a deficit of 1,736 Physical Education teachers and many sports areas are in poor condition. (Sue Kellerman)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 11 July 2019 — «Breathe deeply, touch your shoulders with your hands», the young PE teacher instructs some children who laugh, leave the line and from time to time follow the instructions of the teacher, while they play an improvised football match with a handball.

The scene takes place in the Havana neighborhood of El Cerro, in a square with a cracked pavement with the grass growing through it. It must be one of those 10,700 sports areas with problems, of which 3,863 are evaluated as poor or bad, according to the report presented this week before the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP).

This deterioration and the deficit of 1,736 teachers of Physical Education, which the document also mentions, means that in many elementary schools physical education period has become a time to run around or have a snack, but not to do sports.

Despite the fact that every year hundreds of students graduate from the Provincial School of Physical Education (EPEF), many teachers of this subject migrate to other better-paid activities and many recent graduates do not even teach classes to fulfill their two years of social service. Some end up in the schools practicing this professions, more out of family pressures so they don’t «hang around the house doing nothing,» their true vocation.

«I started with tremendous enthusiasm but along the way I realized that this is very hard,» 14ymedio hears from Osniel Villafuente, a 23-year-old who, five years ago, began to teach Physical Education classes in a high school in San Miguel del Census. A few months passed and he lost the taste for work because «the lack of resources limits everything you dream about during the years you spend learning the profession,» he explains.

Right now, the authorities of the Ministry of Education are in a process of reforming the programs in the subject. For decades, two sports were practiced in elementary school, but after the adjustments in the program this may be expanded to six, and the teachers will choose which sports disciplines they teach, in line with the facilities of each school.

The metal frame of an old school table serves as a goal in a sports area on Carlos III Street that several schools in the area use. A student has brought his own ball to practice with his classmates. The group that arrived later was not so lucky and could only train doing some racing and some squatting.

In the absence of teachers and sports equipment, the Physical Education period is often used to snack, run or play. (James Emery)

For Osniel Villafuente the reform that the authorities seek in the subject could, instead of alleviating the problems, end up aggravating them. «With two sports it is already difficult for us to complete the study program because there are few resources. Having a ball is a problem and the areas where we do exercises are in very bad condition. So what is going to happen when new sports are incorporated?»

«In addition, we have a lack of interest among the students because they were born and live in this century, but they are receiving a course conceived and designed in the last century that is not interesting,» adds the teacher, who now works in a small workshop repairing mobile phones. «These teenagers today have grown up with video games and manga cartoons, they make fun of you when you tell them to raise an arm or raise a leg.»

The president of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (Inder), Osvaldo Vento Montiller, explained this week to parliamentarians about the need to «make the subject of Physical Education an attractive activity for students». An urgency in an era «where digitization and computer products prevail, in which recreation is associated with a sedentary lifestyle».

The official acknowledged that the physical education taught in schools across the island continues to generate «dissatisfaction and does not meet the expectations of students.» On the other hand, he pointed out that there is not a good recruitment of talents among children and teens to prepare them as athletes, an absence that is undermining the foundations of Cuban sport.

«I have five students out of a total of 17 who almost never come to Physical Education,» laments a teacher of the subject who twice a week trains her students in a park in the neighborhood of La Timba, near the Plaza of the Revolution. «Four other students have medical certificates that say they can not do physical education, but everyone knows they are justifications that are invented with the complicity of parents to skip this period.»

In schools where teachers are missing, it is common practice for the subject to be graded automatically with the maximum score in the students’ file. A situation that increases disrespect towards the discipline.

«My daughter has three periods without a physical education teacher and at that time what they do is go out to the playground and start playing,» laments Yanelis, mother of a student at the José Luis Arruñada elementary school in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución. «In several meetings with the school’s management, we have demanded that the problem be solved, but we are told that they do not have teachers, that nobody wants the position.»

The mother considers that now is a good time to alleviate the situation with the salary increase announced at the end of June and that will benefit, starting this month, more than 2.7 million public workers, including employees of the Ministry of Education.

«We’re going to see if that motivates many of those graduates to go back to school and stand in front of a group,» says the woman. «If this is not the case, I do not know how this can be fixed because the longer these children do not receive Physical Education classes, the more they will have less interest in sports, something that will hold them back for the rest of their lives,» says Yanelis.

In universities the picture is not very different. In these centers of higher education the practice of sports is usually limited to students who have the ability to compete and represent their faculty in the University Games. Those who have no talent can barely access the facilities where those who already know how to play basketball, volleyball or baseball are trained, and they must settle for going around the track and doing a little warm-up.

The prominence achieved by Cuba in sports has decreased markedly in the last 20 years. We are already talking with nostalgia about the times when the Island had won trophies in all the regional events and even surpassed first world countries in the Olympics.

Yanelis is clear: «How are we going to have Olympic champions if right now there are children who spend the Physical Education shift throwing stones or playing with a mobile phone?»

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