Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cuba's Athlete-Refugees

Cuba's Athlete-Refugees
The Pan American Games in Rio marked by Cuban runaways
Alan Mota
Published 2007-07-29 16:25 (KST)

As a known power in sports, Cuba has traditionally been at the higher
places of any medal board in Olympic or Pan American games. Their
prowess in sports with lots of medals in stake, such as boxing,
athletics (track and field) and gymnastics have provided sports history
with many legends from the small communist island. No wonder Cuba's
leader, Fidel Castro, has the Pan American games of Rio de Janeiro as
his favorite events of the moment, as he declared recently. In this
edition, particularly, he has a lot to celebrate, with Cuba maintaining
its reputation by winning over 40 gold medals, with Brazil in a close
third place.

But there's another aspect to the current edition of the games that
Fidel certainly doesn't like, and that ended up marking the games
because of its frequency: The number of "athlete-refugees" that saw the
competition in the Brazilian tourism capital as a chance to take a shot
at financial and political independence from the motherland, running
away from their quarters for a job overseas, preferably in Europe. The
escaping of Cuban athletes is not new, but in Rio it happened with such
an intensity and with such important athletes that it brought the issue
back to headlines and to Fidel's concern.

This year, it all started with Dacosta Capote, left winger of Cuba's
handball team, who fled his apartment at Vila Panamericana (Pan American
Village, where the athletes are lodged during the games) and paid R$600
(approx. US$290) for a taxi ride to Sao Caetano, in the state of Sao
Paulo, where he planned to get a place in a local handball team. But the
team happened to already have the maximum number of foreigners in its
roster, yet the jobless Cuban decided to stay and request Brazilian
authorities to be considered a political exile.

The event had great repercussion in local media and especially in the
Cuban delegation. Athletes from other sports refused to make any
comment, while Cuba's handball coach Carlos Galindo minimized the escape
and said the team was more united by the desertion, even though Capote
is still considered a traitor. The wounded seemed to have started to
heal when the following desertions came in. First, the gymnastics coach
Lazaro Lamelas and then the most devastating losses so far: Guillermo
Rigondeaux, two-time Olympic boxing champion up to 54kg and Erislandy
Lara, world boxing champion up to 69kg, both considered sure gold
medalists for Cuba at this year's games.

As the Cuban delegation remains perplexed and the athlete-refugees ask
for exile in Brazil (if they will remain in the country is a mystery),
sports fan ask: Why do they run away and where do they go?

Fidel Castro seems to know the answer. In a recent message for
international journalists, the Cuabn leader blamed (not surprisingly)
the U.S. for the desertion of the athletes, and mentioned that Germany
houses a boxing mafia that seduces Cubans with "refined psychological
methods and millions of dollars." He also lightly criticized Brazil
between the lines, mentioning that the presence of the athletes in the
country was a problem and that he didn't expect the country to concede
the sought after exile to the runaways.

Right or not, the leader has some recent experience on the issue. Last
year, three of the top Cuban boxers had already fled during a
competition in Venezuela, later to be found fighting professionally in
Hamburg, Germany. Not to mention the record-setting mark of the Winnipeg
Pan American Games, in 1999, where 19 members of the delegation ran away.

The "traitors," as Fidel referred to them, do have a good reason to run
away from the country, though. The prohibition to compete professionally
and live in other countries leaves a gap between these men and women,
often the best in the whole world at what they do, and not so good
athletes from other countries who live more comfortable lives, making
more money than the Cubans could even dream of in their own country. The
three boxer-refugees who ran away from Venezuela, for example, earn
thousands of euros in Germany and practice in state-of-the-art
facilities, while boxers who remained didn't have much more than their
medals in their houses.

Other athletes and coaches, even thought not notorious at their sports,
also escape for a good reason. An average volleyball or handball player
can earn a lot of money in the competitive leagues of Europe or North
America (notably the U.S. and Canada), while a coach such as the one who
fled during the Rio edition of the games is highly sought after by
countries which want to start a tradition in a certain sport, but don't
have the know-how to raise a new breed of world-class athletes.

The main question in the issue is: Who can really blame them? Unlike
politics or military issues, sports are not a matter of national
security, where the "desertion" of an important person could jeopardize
a country. Everywhere else in the world, athletes migrate from their
home countries to live and compete somewhere else, but are more than
glad to represent their native colors in international events, earning
victories for the homeland often for nothing more than sheer pride. Just
like some countries specialize in forming good athletes, others
specialize in providing these athletes with the best resources for them
to excel. And usually everybody wins.

After all, what would be of football stars such as Ronaldinho and Kaka,
for example, a if they didn't have the European leagues to serve as a
stage, and the teams to provide them with everything necessary for their
fitness needs? Maria Sharapova, the tennis wonder, was brought to her
current level by an American coach, Nick Bolletieri. Daiane dos Santos,
a Brazilian who holds the world championship for gymnastics, has a
Ukranian coach. It never hurt them to leave their own country (quite the
opposite, actually) and they never stopped defending their native country.

The bottom line is that an athlete, like anyone else, likes to be paid
what he deserves for his skills. And an athlete, like anyone else, likes
to have the freedom to live and work wherever he might want to. When the
Cuban government, for no apparent reason other than old-fashioned,
hard-headed ideology, impedes their top athletes of achieving both
things, the result could only be the one we see on the news. Those who
argument that it's ungrateful to abandon the country that formed them
seem to forget that the athlete got up to a certain level by his own
merits, more than anything else. And those who argument that Cuba needs
to retain its talents seem to forget that many athletes who get
international fund academies or non-profit projects in their homelands
aimed exactly at forming future generations of athletes, when they don't
become coaches themselves.

Not to mention the fact that by living and working abroad, athletes and
coaches can learn many things about the evolution of their respective
sports that they wouldn't learn otherwise, increasing the chances of
improvement back home.

Yet, Castro and his regime seem to like the old dictatorial strategy of
restraining the liberty of the ones they need the most. This infantile
tactics does nothing more than spur revolt in the competitors, who have
a glimpse of a more comfortable life every time they leave Cuba for an
event, only to come back to their inferior practice conditions and
salaries. Fidel might think the athletes are ungrateful, but the
government seems to be the most ungrateful of all, treating their
champions this way.

Under this view, the recent desertions become a billboard for other
athletes who think of the same but are still trapped in the Caribbean
island, and there's not much the government can do about it, expect
watch their champions excel without getting any advantage from it.

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