The facts are readily available. Cuba is number 106 on the planet in terms of geographic area, number 18 in the Americas. Ranking its population presents no problems: Cuba's 11 million inhabitants place the country 82nd worldwide; 12th in the Americas; and fifth in Central America and the Caribbean.
Cuba is likewise far down on lists of the richest nations. On the contrary, we feature prominently on that of blockaded countries, subjected to continual attempts to create hunger and deprivation. In this category, we are always on the podium.
A Singular Contrast in Sports
Yet Cuba holds an unchallenged first place on the Central American and Caribbean medal chart. Likewise in Latin America; second on the entire American continent; and among the top ten on the globe!
Since we have become so accustomed to this reality, the magnitude of what the Revolution has accomplished in sports escapes us at times.
And Cuba has helped to extend sports throughout the world. Beyond its inspiring example, the country has sent a wealth of training experience abroad and founded a school to train coaches, free of charge, to help others.
The success of athletes from economically advantaged countries should come as no surprise, nor those from nations with particularly helpful characteristics like the physical traits of the population, that is different ethnic groups, isolated areas like plains, coasts, and mountains with densely populated areas. It is to be expected that they are gaining on Cuba in the medal count, and winning.
What is important is competing with honor, never accepting poor results produced by deficient training, apathy, or lack of fighting spirit. The dignity of Cuban sports was evident during this last Olympic cycle.
In the Veracruz 2014 Games, Cuban athletes overcame the home team but lost second place.
In the Toronto 2015 Pan Americans and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, our performances did not meet expectations.
In the present cycle, Colombia is preparing for the Central American and Caribbean Games, Barranquilla 2018, inspired to defeat not only Mexico but Cuba, too. It has the potential and has set goals. Dreaming doesn't cost a thing.
Reaching Cuba would take a Century
But Cuba is going for victory again. The goal has been reiterated, although the country enjoys a huge advantage in the medal count historically. In Central American and Caribbean Games, the country has 514 gold medals, and a total greater than Mexico's: 1,749 to 1,235, respectively, despite three absences. Cuba has enjoyed home field advantage just twice, while Mexico has hosted the Games four times.
Let us suppose that, from now on, Mexico wins 20 gold medals per event. Given this hypothesis, they would need 26 Games to reach Cuba, more than a century before they could take the regional crown, despite its population of 123 million.
Colombia and its 49 million inhabitants would need to wait even longer to accumulate 453 gold medals, and surpass third-place Venezuela's 561 titles, before challenging Cuba.
In the Pan American Games, the all-time second place spot will be Cuba's for a while. Following the United States, Cuba holds 876 gold medals versus Canada's 455, Brazil with 329, and Argentina at 295. There are 36 million Canadians, 207 million Brazilians, and almost 44 million Argentines.
In the Olympic World
The Olympic Games have afforded Cuba a privileged spot, an all-time number 18 position among more than 200 nations, with a very limited presence prior to 1959.
In the Revolutionary era, the country reached 15th, and this is despite the absences due to international solidarity in 1984 and 1988.
I would prefer to evaluate Cuba in a more thriving Olympic era, from 1992 to date, although the impact of professional sports has reached new heights.
The qualitative level of athletes has improved as well, for another reason. Before, three athletes from the Soviet Union competed in a given sport, perhaps a Russian, a Kazak, and a Lithuanian. Since the demise of the USSR, three Russians, three Kazaks, and three Lithuanians can participate, plus three Ukrainians, three Belorussians, etc.
The commercialization of sports and the theft of talent have increased. More money has meant more doping.
University scholarships for athletes appeared in capitalist countries, with government and business support for sports growing exponentially, given the evident dividends in terms of both political and commercial publicity.
Cuba, facing its most difficult economic period, offered coaching help to those who requested, unconcerned about potential new opponents. Examples abound.
10th place with 56 Champions
Despite these challenges, the last 25 years have produced a fortune: no less than 56 Olympic champions.
Even the most successful countries hold Cuban sports in high regard. Only nine have more medals: the United States 283; China 207; Russia 151; Germany 124; the United Kingdom 101; Australia 78; France 75; South Korea, 71; and Italy 66.
Imagine how many nations long to be part of this select group, some that have been able to purchase star athletes, and others that excel in one area, but lack multi-dimensionality.
Japan is right there with Cuba, at 55, and should move ahead. No one doubts its prowess, and the country has made a comeback since being awarded the 2020 Olympic site, winning 79 medals in London and Beijing, 19 of these gold.
Hungary has 53, winning 16 in the last two Games, eight per capita, with the Netherlands at 43, while the rest haven't reached 40. New Zealand holds the 20th place with only 21 gold medals.
The total number of medals won is even more indicative of the level of sports in a given country, according to some experts, since countries which dominate a specific event, with only one gold medal rank higher than another with any number of silver and bronze medals.
In this count, Cuba shines as well, with its total being almost three times its number of gold medals. The full total of 164, includes the most recent won by Misleidys Gonzalez, which was a silver in the shot put; and with bronzes in weightlifting from Yordanis Borrero (69 kg), Jadiel Valladares (85), and Yoandris Hernandez (94), all initially bested by doped opponents.
After Río 2016, Cuba was displaced on the total medal count, with Japan moving into the 9th spot from the 11th, jumping over both Cuba and South Korea.
There is obviously many similarities in the two systems, with sports powerhouses ranking high in both, even though some differences are evident.
One clarification: This reporter is not attempting to justify Cuba's performance in Río, nor that in Toronto. Negligence cannot be overlooked.
The Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation has been clear on this issue. Its evaluation of the high-performance program rated only four disciplines as "good," including only boxing among Olympic disciplines, with wrestling and judo described as "average," and athletics "poor."
A Great Legacy
Only 110 Cuban athletes participated in any Olympic Games before 1959, including only one woman, as compared to 1,821 since then, with 497 women, competing at the level of their dreams.
During the earlier period, a total of 12 medals (five gold) were won. Since Rome 1960, 210 have been won, including 73 gold medals. What a difference! We owe eternal gratitude to the Revolution for its work in sports and especially its leader and guide, Fidel.
We have a commitment to the Comandante, who made sports a right for all, and who participated despite his many duties leading the country. He cheered our successes like any Cuban, and carefully analyzed the setbacks.
Fidel devoted hours to exchanging opinions with athletes, to learning and sharing knowledge and convictions. He enjoyed greeting returning champions, and all members of delegations, on the airport tarmac.
His leading role in the development of Cuban sports is unquestioned. No one would deny his devotion and commitment to sports and to athletes. That is why so many remember him, admire him, thank him.
But his legacy must also be defended. His work in sports must endure, as a lasting tribute to Cuba's sports movement.
Our dear colleague Enrique Montesinos, died suddenly May 16. Publishing this, his last article serves as a tribute to a life well-lived, devoted to Cuban sports.
First Published in Granma International on June 16, 2017.