Latin America & Caribbean

Cuban athletes face hurdles on road to sporting glory

Cuban athletes in Havana in September 2014
Image caption Cuba's sports stars have been down on their luck in recent years

Looming down on Cuba's young athletes as they train at the Pan American Stadium on the outskirts of Havana is a billboard with an image of Che Guevara and his famous words "Hasta la victoria, siempre" (Until victory, always).

But unfortunately for Cuba, "la victoria" has been distinctly lacking from their track and field team in recent years.

London 2012 was considered Cuba's poorest showing at an Olympic Games since the 1970s, with just three medals in athletics, none of them gold.

It is a far cry from the days of Javier Sotomayor. The high jump world champion from Limonar in rural Cuba dominated his sport for over a decade.

Glory days

Sotomayor took Olympic gold in Barcelona 1992 and silver in Sydney 2000.

Were it not for Cuba's decision to boycott the games in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988, he surely would have won more.

The massive 2.45m (8.04ft) he set in 1993 is still the world record to this day.

Image caption High jump world record holder Javier Sotomayor

"I think we've lost athletes along the way, probably because of the current economic circumstances in the country," Sotomayor reflects, talking to the BBC at his home in Havana.

Now retired from the sport, the world record holder plays an ambassadorial role for Cuban athletics abroad.

"The situation in sports, particularly in athletics, isn't the most adequate. Whether it's the lack of competitions or of equipment, that's partly why we've seen a decline in athletics in Cuba."

Even eating a balanced diet with all the daily calories a growing athlete needs can be difficult in Cuba.

Given the shortages, some athletes have been lured away by better training facilities and lucrative contracts abroad.

It has made some Cubans wonder where the country's next Olympic gold might be coming from.

Fresh blood

The answer may lie with 16-year-old Lorenzo Martinez.

On first impression he looks like a typical Cuban teenager: colourful earphones dangling around his neck and sporting a fashionable Mohican haircut.

But Lorenzo is the reigning World Junior triple jump champion and is heavily tipped for future glory.

Image caption Lorenzo Martinez says he will stay loyal to his Cuban homeland

Asked if he would ever be tempted away to another country with more money or better facilities, Lorenzo dismisses the idea with a laugh.

"No, never," he says.

"The Cuban people have given me everything. There's no need to go anywhere else. This is where I was born and this is where I've achieved all my success so far."

Lorenzo's coach, Marcos Perez, has trained generations of triple jumpers and was a successful athlete himself in his youth.

He is confident that a state programme to identify and prioritise promising young athletes will bear fruit at the next Olympics Games in Rio in 2016.

But he admits the past few years have not been easy.

"The coaches here are very well qualified," Mr Perez says. "What we lack are resources. If we had greater resources, we'd be able to achieve what we're capable of."

"We work with what we've got, we're inventive and we substitute things. But, for example, a new running track is very expensive for Cuba, a country of limited resources. So we have only one athletics track: this one."

Left to languish

The government blames such problems in acquiring new equipment on the 52-year-old economic embargo on Cuba by the United States, which has complicated the import of everything from new javelins to crash mats.

Critics say that sport has been allowed to languish in Cuba, particularly over the past decade.

Javier Sotomayor recognises that when he was at his peak so too was investment in infrastructure and training in athletics in Cuba.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Javier Sotomayor says times have changed and it is harder for Cuban athletes now than in his sporting days

"In our day, during what could be called 'sport of the Revolution', from the 1960s onwards, we had a lot of support and training from the socialist bloc in Europe and, above all, the Soviets. We had Bulgarians, Hungarians and Czechs here. In my case, my coach was trained in the Soviet Union."

Austere times

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, an era of severe austerity, known as the Special Period, was ushered in during which new sporting infrastructure was not a priority for the country's communist government.

The consequences of the years of underinvestment can be seen at the Pan American Stadium in Havana.

The crumbling Soviet-era arena is in urgent need of renovation.

In particular, its synthetic running track needs a new surface as it has hardened and baked under the hot Caribbean sun.

Image caption The stadium is in dire need of a make-over

The stands have fallen into disrepair.

As Lorenzo opens out his vast stride on the blistered and damaged triple jump run up, he needs to be careful to avoid injury ahead of Rio de Janeiro in two years' time.

At 16, he still has a long way to go to replicate the feats of his idol, Javier Sotomayor.

But perhaps the biggest hurdles for Cuba's young athletes are not on the track at all.

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