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The Best little sports machine in the World
S.L. Price
May 15, 1995
Though beset by defections, economic hardship and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba continues to turn out champions
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May 15, 1995

The Best Little Sports Machine In The World

Though beset by defections, economic hardship and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba continues to turn out champions

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This is victory. Alberto Juantorena grins: He is 19 years past his great moment, but he radiates a young man's vigor, enthusiasm, muscle. Remember Montreal? He blew the field away in the 400 and 800 meters at the '76 Olympics, head tilted, mouth agape, chugging at spectacular speed while the other runners prayed for him to flag. It never happened. El caballo, they called him, because only a horse ran with that kind of power, and the Horse hasn't flagged yet. No, he hops in and out of his chair, he grabs his phone and has two conversations at once, but mostly he grins and jokes because this is Cuba, you see: a shattered economy, begging and prostitution on the rise, hardliners in Washington and Miami straining to cut off the island's last bit of air—all that, yes, and Cuba is winning still.

The halls outside Juantorena's office in Havana have no lights and stink of mold. His athletes eat poorly and play in second-rate venues. So? Who won 238 medals—more than any country but the mighty U.S.—at the recent Pan American Games in Argentina? Who, despite gas shortages and power outages, has the world's best high jumper, best national baseball team, best women volleyball players, best amateur boxers? Which country won the most medals per capita at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona?

"And I promise you," says Juantorena, vice president of his country's Olympic committee, raising five splayed fingers before his face, "in Atlanta we'll be better. I'm going to be there. You can interview me afterward, and I'll show you. I'll have the medals in my hands."

You want to doubt him? Get in line. The planet is loaded with experts who've spent the last 36 years predicting the end of Fidel Castro's socialist dream, who pointed to the cutoff of Soviet aid in 1992, to the ever-tightening U.S. trade embargo, to last summer's unprecedented riots and the resulting tsunami of escaping rafters as the beginning of some bloody end. The critics are even more strident now: The revolution, they say, is bankrupt. On the island the Cuban peso is laughed at, the dollar is king, and nothing highlights that more than the nation's current foray into buying and selling its most prized resource: sports.

Suddenly, Cuba's female volleyball sensation Mireya Luis, who was raised to loathe capitalism, is pocketing money to play in Japan while 500 Cuban coaches and trainers ply their craft in 38 countries. High jumper Javier Sotomayor, holder of the world record, owns a Mercedes-Benz and wears the name of a Spanish gin maker on his chest when he competes in Europe; six more Cuban track stars will do likewise this year. Last year five Cubans played baseball in Japan for the first time—and that number will triple and expand to Italy this season. Long a cocky bastion of amateur ideals, the best little sports machine on earth now rattles and rings like a cash register.

But if such a trend irks Juantorena, a true believer who embodied Castro's purist athletic aims better than anyone, he doesn't look unhappy. No, he says, there has been no betrayal of socialism. "That's what the world says, but we still control the athlete," Juantorena says. "We control the money." And more: Aside from keeping 70% or more of the athletes' pay, the state ensures their return by making them travel without their families.

Juantorena beams, his face colored by a superb tan. He feels so good about Cuba's flirtation with capitalism that he becomes playful; he taunts those Americans who drool over the possibility that a prime talent like third baseman Omar Linares will someday play in the major leagues.

"Linares? Our cleanup hitter?" Juantorena snorts. "No, we're going to keep him around, so we can keep beating you in baseball. Instead, why don't you let one of our teams be in the big leagues? Then you'll see if we can compete. Then you'll have a true World Series, then you'll see how great a World Series can be. Think about this: You let in the Cubans, and a whole new rooster will crow."

He pops to his feet again, shuffling papers on the desk. He claps loudly: interview over. Wait, his norteamericano guests say, just one more thing.... No, Juantorena rolls toward the door like a towering, jovial wave, arms wide, gathering the small crowd before him and pushing it out. But just as his backpedaling guests prepare to fall out of the room, Juantorena abruptly halts. "Hey!" he says. He raises his hand—but not, this time, to make predictions.

"Where," says el caballo, hero of the revolution, "is my cash?"

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