Cuban Sport Fades Away / Ivan Garcia

cubag-620x330The defection of Cuban athletes is no longer news. And gone are the front-page headlines announcing epic victories and world championships.

The state coffers are empty. The sports schools no longer turn out strings of champions like sausages. In the last Olympic Games in London 2012, we finished in 16th place.

Underline that result. It is likely that from now on the performance will get worse. The problem is not that the population has become sedentary or obese. Or that Cubans have given up their love of sports.

No. What has happened is a quiet revolution within the sports movement in Cuba. Athletes have become tired of being handled like puppets for the regime’s propaganda.

They also want to earn lavish salaries like their peers in the world, to be free to sign with any major team, and to manage their earnings without state interference.

So they leave Cuba. And will continue leaving: baseball players, boxers, volleyballers, track and field athletes, and competitors from other disciplines.

The government of General Raúl Castro does not want to open the gate. From now on, it is the State that designates who will compete in a foreign league, and how much money they should be paid.

The olive green mandarins have again miscalculated. They are trying to design a structure similar to that of Cuban contractors abroad — to manage contracts and pocket the lion’s share. Like doctors and civilian advisers, athletes will be a commodity. A way to bring dollars into the government’s deflated accounts.

They have forgotten Fidel Castro’s once fierce speech against professionalism. Rent-an-athlete is now welcome, as long as the athlete is as meek as a sheep.

But times are different. Olympic champion Dayron Robles has gotten tired of being manipulated by remote control. Robles has charted a new course: that of the independent athlete. He has the intransigent national sports directors against the ropes.

Taking advantage of loopholes in the January 13 immigration reform, Dayron intends to compete freely in the Diamond League, without having to defect from his homeland or give up competing in future international tournaments under the Cuban flag.

The Cuban authorities are unwilling to accept his decision or negotiate a way out. Dayron Robles will mark a turning point in the Cuban sports movement.

The authorities are at a crossroads. If they yield to him, they could set a bad precedent, and in the short-term lose control of the salaries of athletes allowed to compete in foreign leagues.

That’s the key. The regime knows that it can bring in several hundred million dollars annually by hiring out athletes. The ideal would be to levy a reasonable tax on wages for athletes competing on foreign clubs. And allow athletes to manage as they see fit the money they earn with their sweat and talent.

It would be good for both sides. No one would be forced to leave Cuba. But in an autocracy, reasonableness is a bad word. The government’s intransigent position led to this quagmire.

Due to wrong policies, about a thousand athletes have been forced to defect. Athletes on the island are not unaware of the success of Yasser Puig, Yoennis Céspedes and Osmany Juantorena, among many others.

They also want to compete with the best and earn wages commensurate with their athletic caliber. In their country they earn the salaries of laborers. Few can start a restaurant when they retire, like Mireya Luis, Raúl Diago, or Javier Sotomayor.

They only have two choices: become coaches or political commissioners in the style of the sinister Alberto Juantorena. The downward spiral of Cuban sport is attributable to the stubbornness of the regime, which seeks to control sports contracts from a desk and only with its consent.

Already in the last Olympics Cuba was not represented in team sports. The performance of the men’s volleyball team in the World League, with one win and seven defeats, is the price paid for this intolerance.

Every year sports stars leave. The fans cheer. But there are other avenues to explore. The country does not belong to the Castros. It is everyone’s. Each of us born on this island must reclaim what we consider our inalienable rights.

It is a hard choice. The scribes of the official press defame those athletes who freely decide to separate from the Cuban sports movement. The IOC and the international federations can and should mediate the dispute.

Athletes like Robles are entitled not to be slaves. Congratulations to Dayron.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from Últimas Noticias, Venezuela.

Translated by Tomás A.

12 September 2013