On a warm evening in a Barcelona suburb 24 years ago, the air thick and heavy, the light-grey and gold, Cuba and the USA met in a baseball game that was as much a contest of ideologies as an Olympic semi-final. As the two teams lined up to shake hands before the semi-final, each Cuban presented his opponent with a commemorative pennant. The Americans had come empty-handed.
The USA team consisted of college boys, some of them on the brink of Major League-careers. The Cubans were veterans of their domestic league, unbeaten in almost 70 internationals. After a scoreless first hour, it was barely a contest. In the fourth inning, in front of 7,000 spectators, Orestes Kindelán smashed a pitch from Ricky Helling over the left-field wall for a bases-empty home run that began a cruise to a 6-1 victory.
Helling, a Stanford University student, was on his way to a professional career that would reach its climax when he helped pitch the Florida Marlins to a World Series title in 2003. On the way he dropped the “y” and became Rick, while picking up a large amount in salary. Kindelán’s homer was one of the 487 that made him Cuba’s most prolific hitter. He would win three Olympic medals, two gold and one silver; at the 1996 tournament, as he and his team proceeded to a second triumph, he hit nine home runs in nine games.
In 2000, the year the USA finally pipped Cuba to the top step of the podium, his cousin, the lightweight boxer Mario Kindelán, won the first of two gold medals, before going on to beat Amir Khan of Britain in the 2004 final in Athens. The 17-year-old Khan was one of four future world professional champions – the others were Félix Trinidad, Miguel Cotto and Andreas Kotelnik – whom Kindelán would beat during their amateur days. Like the heavyweights Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón, each a three-time Olympic champion, he became a legend at home.
Baseball and boxing were two of the principal sports that provided a stage for the sporting heroes of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. To beat the USA at baseball represented a big statement at a time when the Yanqui economic blockade was still in force. Those 73 boxing medals – 37 of them gold – constituted another.
Long before the singers and musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club beguiled audiences around the world, the sporting heroes of revolutionary Cuba enjoyed global renown. Barely six months after Castro’s guerrillas marched into Havana, a 12-strong team set off for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Enrique Figuerola finished fourth in the 100m and four years later he became the first post-revolutionary Cuban male to win a medal when he took the silver behind Bob Hayes in Tokyo. At Mexico City in 1968 Cuba’s women won their first medal with a 4x100m silver behind the Tennessee Tigerbelles.
The first gold medals came in the 1972 boxing tournament, for Stevenson at heavyweight, Emilio Correa Sr at welterweight and Orlando Martínez at bantamweight. The first gold for a female was secured in the 1980 javelin competition by María Caridad Colón, also the first non-white athlete of either sex to win an Olympic throwing event.
Stevenson was the first poster-boy for Cuban sport. He was as handsome as Muhammad Ali and a couple of inches taller at 6ft 5in, and like the American he took his first Olympic title at an early age (Ali was 18 and Stevenson 20). What a match-up it would have made, had they not been born 10 years apart. Turning down a fortune offered by American promoters for just such a fight, he said: “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
Castro’s regime fell short of perfection in many important respects, but no Cuban athlete ever needed to stage a podium protest to highlight discrimination on grounds of colour in his home country. Stevenson visited Ali in the US in 1995, and repaid the hospitality the following year. In Havana, already muted by Parkinson’s disease, Ali presented Castro with a framed photograph of himself and Malcolm X walking along a Harlem street in 1963, a time when the boxer and the Cuban leader were both in their prime: Castro with the Bay of Pigs victory and the missile crisis behind him, and Ali looking ahead to the first Liston fight.
Alberto Juantorena, the man with the 9ft stride, burst into the spotlight in 1976 to take the 400m and 800m gold medals in Montreal, and later became Cuba’s vice sports minister. Anier García and Dayron Robles in the 110m hurdles, Javier Sotomayor in the high jump and Iván Pedroso in the long jump, Yumileidi Cumbá in the shot put, Maritza Martén in the discus, Osleidys Menéndez in the javelin, and a whole bunch of Greco-Roman wrestlers, pistol shooters, judokas, Taekwondo exponents and, of course, boxers also brought gold.
And no list would be complete without Ana Fidelia Quirot, the 800m runner part-named after El Comandante en Jefe. Having missed the 1984 and 1988 Games through boycotts, she took the bronze in 1992, a year after winning the first of her three world championship medals. She returned to take the silver in 1996, having undergone 21 operations to treat the third-degree burns that covered 38% of her body when a kerosene heater exploded as she washed clothes while seven months pregnant with a daughter who died days after an induced birth.
Some athletes felt compelled to escape the world Castro had made. Dozens of baseball players went on to make their livings with Major League clubs, none more lucratively than Rusney Castillo, who signed a seven-year contract with the Boston Red Sox worth $72.5m in 2014. The boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux won two Olympic gold medals at bantamweight before defecting in 2007, turning pro and becoming the world super-bantamweight champion.
Maybe, as the writer Jeré Longman suggested in the New York Times this week, Castro was never quite as much of a baseball fan (or player) as the propaganda suggested. Perhaps he really preferred basketball and soccer. But the many athletes who chose not to defect knew that they were benefitting from his belief that sport and exercise in general were good for the nation’s health as well as its pride, even when times became tough and the swimming pools were drained and the floodlights switched off to save power.
And there was, so far as I can discover, never a hint of the sort of organised doping programmes that other regimes, including those friendly to Cuba, developed to boost their illusory prestige.