Thursday, 9 August 2012

Sport at the heart of revolution

Interview with double Olympic gold-medalist Alberto Juantorena

On a recent visit to a North London primary school, Cuban Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena was asked by a pupil how much his gold medals were worth. Nobody had asked Juantorena the question before and, unsurprisingly, he didn’t know the answer – but the exchange gave a fascinating insight into the contrasting British and Cuban mentalities. Whilst Britain racks up an £11bn bill for the Olympic games, Cuba continues to punch above its weight in the field of sport despite a relentless blockade. As Britain’s Olympic bill grows, Juantorena observes wryly, “with a smaller budget you could do fantastic things as long as you organise and have government support”.

Alberto Juantorena remains the only athlete to win both the 400m and 800m Olympic titles. At the 1976 Montreal games, Juantorena – also known as El Caballo (the Horse) – achieved the unique feat of winning golds in both sprint and middle-distance events. He smashed the 800m world record and, in doing so, redefined middle-distance running.

Despite his unequalled sporting achievements, Juantorena remains best known in Britain for being the subject of one of the most infamous commentary gaffes. As Ron Pickering exclaimed as El Caballo galloped to victory in 1976, “there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class”.

Standing at well over six foot tall, Juantorena is an imposing figure. Affable and with contagious enthusiasm, he is a giant both on and off the field. Having served in Cuba’s National Assembly for over a decade, he is now Vice-President of INDER, the Cuban Institute of Sport, as he seeks to nurture the next generation of Cuban sporting heroes.

Originally a promising basketball player – representing Santiago province and the national team – Juantorena was encouraged into track and field by his Polish coach Zygmunt Zabierzowski after running the 400m in 51.5 seconds whilst wearing basketball shoes. In 1972, at the age of 22, he made his Olympic debut in Munich where he was narrowly defeated in the semi-finals. For the next two years he remained undefeated and – after recovering from two foot operations – emerged as the 400m favourite in Montreal.

Success in the 400m seemed inevitable – until the indomitable Zabierzowski had another brainwave:
"Three months before Montreal he said ‘you will run the 800m in the next Olympics’ and I said ‘No way man, you’re crazy’. Do you know why? Because I was afraid. I knew that the 800m was the first event and I was worried that I’d be tired after the first race and wouldn’t win anything in the 400m either." 
Zabierzowski set about building Juantorena’s confidence and – at a training camp in Italy – asked him to pace the first lap for two teammates who still needed the 800m qualifying time. He found the first lap so easy that he completed the second and chalked up the second fastest time in the world that season. 

The only person to run faster was Rick Wolhuter of the United States who dismissed the unknown Cuban’s chances in an interview with the French newspaper L’Equipe: “I don’t think he’ll be able to make three rounds in Montreal”.

“They didn’t know about me,” beams Juantorena with a smile as wide as his gigantic stride. “I didn’t have any history in the 800m and from a psychological point of view that gave me an advantage over them”.  
"We changed the strategy of the 800m. Before the first lap was 52 or 53 seconds because they ran the 800m and 1500m. Because I was a 400m runner I could do the first lap in 44.6 seconds, and I was walking! The first lap was faster than ever."
Juantorena broke Marcello Fiasconaro's world record and became the first 800m Olympic champion from a non-English speaking country. “No-one thought the tall guy with the basketball socks and the big hair could win. Nobody cared about me and suddenly boom, I smashed it”. Three days later he sprinted to 400m glory and became the first person to compete on every day of the athletics programme.

Returning to Cuba a national hero, he was greeted at Havana airport by Fidel Castro.
“Fidel gave me a big hug. He congratulated me and called me his colleague. I asked him why he called me a colleague and he said that he also ran the 800m. He told me about how he ran in the 1946 college competition in Havana. He had a magazine from the Jesuit school and there he was winning the gold medal! I was very proud to have a colleague like Fidel”
As we sit chatting, Juantorena removes one of his gold medals from its original commemorative case. It is the first time it has left Cuba since 1976 and the other remains on permanent public display in a museum in Havana.
“This belongs to the Cuban people, not to me. It belongs to everyone: the man who prepares the track, my doctors, my coach, my team and my Commander Fidel – but also to every single Cuban who strives on behalf of our country”.
It is a sobering and inclusive sentiment which has underpinned Juantorena’s whole life. He spent the summer after his Olympic triumph volunteering on a sugar plantation. “I wanted to cut cane, support the workers and help the economy,” he declares proudly. “The first voluntary work in Cuba was created by Che Guevara and it is part of our tradition”. 

Juantorena sees himself as both a product and champion of the Cuban revolution. “When the revolution triumphed, the opportunity to participate in sport opened up to everyone regardless of religion, gender or race,” he reflects.
“Before 1959, professionalism was the only way to compete in sport. You couldn’t go to sport installations because they were private. But look at the change! Fidel abolished both these things – professionalism and private institutions – and put all those facilities in the hands of the people”.
The revolution brought a new mentality and new coaches to Cuban sport. Before 1959, there were only 800 physical education teachers, now there are 78,000. “We had only one Olympic champion – and he lived and trained in France,” says Juantorena. “Now we have 62”. All this has been achieved despite an unrelenting and pernicious blockade.

Juantorena – who has been denied a visa to the US on four separate occasions for being a “danger” to the American people – laments the debilitating effects of the blockade. “We cannot buy anything from the United States. If we want to buy a javelin, shoes or rice, we need to go via another country like China or Pakistan. It would be cheaper to go to the United States, but we cannot do it.”

“Two of our pole-vaulters – L├ízaro Borges and Yarisley Silva – need equipment, but the pole they need is produced in the United States by UCS Enterprise and we cannot trade with them. Do you know how I got them five poles each for a tournament last month?” he asks.

“I called a friend of mine in Mexico who was a former president of their association. I asked him to speak to UCS – even though they are friends of mine – and we had to get the poles via Mexico.”
“We practise sport in Cuba with a real lack of everything. Almost nothing. Our infrastructure is not sophisticated. Our resources – from an economic point of view – are not high. But we have been successful because we focus on children. We pay a lot of attention to physical education which is compulsory in school from primary to university. And we produce athletes like a windmill – we never stop. Why? Because if you have mass participation, if you have 2.5m students – from primary to university – practising sport at least three times a week, then you can see the talent, select it and nurture it. It’s easy.”
The organisation of physical education in Cuba is multi-layered. Primarily, it focuses on mass participation and, as a sub-product, it seeks to develop champions. Mass participation in sport is a key pillar of Cuba’s exceptional health system.
“Sport is a key benefit to people’s health. It’s better than medicine and it’s also good to socialise, interact with friends and to teach people to think collectively. It’s about providing tools for people to improve their own health. If people can reduce their blood pressure then it reduces the risk of heart attack. Mass programmes of activity can help people with diabetes or obesity.”
Playground sport in Cuba
Juantorena – in his role as Vice-President of INDER – is a sporting visionary focussed on equal and inclusive participation. “We promote sport not to promote competition, but to increase life-expectancy. We aim to increase the health of the people first – but, as a consequence of this, you can develop talent and win medals.” 

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba won nine gold medals – the same as Britain – despite being a sixth of the size. Furthermore, whilst more than one third of Great Britain’s Olympic team in 2012 will have been privately educated and rely on private sponsorship to compete, Cuba’s emphasis on inclusion and mass participation has made sport accessible to all. 
“All the sports people in Cuba are students. They are studying different subjects at university such as physical education, engineering or journalism. It’s very different to everywhere else because our sponsor is the state. The state provides revenue, budget, materials, equipment, medical care, education, flight tickets, food, everything. It’s a completely different approach”
So how well would Britain do if we adopted the same sporting principles as Cuba? “Really, really well,” admits Juantorena. “Because you have the resources and the infrastructure we don’t. The British love sport. My advice is always focus on physical education, not just for future champions, but for the whole country. Everyone might not be a champion, but they will be the politicians, teachers and doctors of tomorrow.”

This interview originally appeared in CubaSi magazine

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