First published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012
After winning his second Olympic gold medal at Montreal Olympics in 1976, Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson refused all bribes by international promoters to encourage him to defect from Cuba with the words: ‘What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?’
Teofilo Stevenson, the Cuban boxer regarded as one of the greatest in the world, died of a heart attack in June at the age of 60. Born to poor immigrant parents, Teofilo benefited from the new social programmes introduced by the revolutionary government after 1959. He went on to become three-time amateur world champion and three times Olympic gold medallist. Many argued that he was in the same league as, if not better than, Muhammad Ali, regarded by many as the greatest boxer ever to have lived. At his death, Muhammad Ali paid tribute to Teofilo, stating: ‘He would have been a formidable opponent to any reigning heavyweight champion or challenger. He was one of the greats of the world. May he rest in peace.’
Under capitalism, sport becomes the preserve of private sponsorship, with massive profits to be made and audiences of predominantly wealthy corporate ticket-holders, while school playing fields are sold off to the private sector and government sport projects are closed down. Cuba’s sporting excellence is testimony to the role of physical education in improving public health care on the island. Mass participation in sport plays an integral role in Cuba’s social development programmes. Pre-revolution there were only 800 physical education teachers across Cuba, today there are more than 78,000. The transition of Cuban sport from private exclusion to public inclusion has transformed the country’s Olympic success rate from one champion pre-1959 to 62 champions to date.
This has been achieved despite the vicious US blockade. Many Cuban sportsmen and women have been denied visas to the US to compete. The embargo denies access to basic sporting equipment, often made by US specialist companies. Most recently, Cuba’s pole-vaulters Lazaro Borges and Yarisley Silva had their application to purchase specialist equipment rejected, forcing them to delay participation in a tournament while they waited for it to be imported via Mexico. Sport is practised in Cuba with very few resources. However, the commitment and creativity of Cuba’s National Sports Institute (INDER) to develop sport as a means of social interaction and health care has allowed the island to achieve success far beyond its means. In the Olympics in Athens in 2004, Cuba claimed nine gold medals – as many as wealthy Britain, six times the size of Cuba.
The 2012 Olympic Games in London is being unfolded as a festival for the rich. More than one third of Great Britain’s Olympic team have been privately educated and rely on private sponsorship to compete. All of Cuba’s Olympians are sponsored by the state. The revolutionary government’s emphasis on mass participation has made competing at the highest sporting stage accessible to all. In the tradition of Teofilo Stevenson, today’s Cuban Olympians fight not only for gold but for their people and for socialism.