Article by Lord Colin Moynihan

Campaign News | Friday, 26 September 2003

Published in the Times, London

Plenty to learn from Cuban philosophy

By Colin Moynihan

THE rain has gone, but in Cuba's Pan American stadium the heat and humidity

are intense. The temperature has risen to in the region of 35C. It is

Tuesday and I am standing with Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban Olympic gold

medal-winner at 400 and 800 metres in 1976. He is telling Sebastian Coe the

story of how, when he arrived in 1979 in Houston he was greeted by

representatives of the United States Athletics Federation. "Do you want the

good news or the bad?" they said.

"I'll take both," Juantorena replied. "First the good: a very warm welcome

from all athletes in the United States to a great champion. And now for the

bad: Sebastian Coe broke your world record last night!"

As I discovered this week in Havana, Cuba's warmth and good humour is a far

cry from the snow-covered streets of East Berlin, where Coe and I travelled

in the late 1980s to build closer sporting links. In Havana, the approach is

open. It bears little resemblance to East Germany's secretive world of

doping and the Stasi. This week we learnt more in an hour about how and why

Cuba's approach to sport has enabled it to achieve so much than in all the

time we spent in East Germany.

Juantorena, who is responsible for schools sport, took time to explain to

Coe and me how different to ours is the philosophy that guides Cuban sport.

"Where we have two elite athletes equal in all respects, identical in

technique, physiological performance and results, we will choose the best

chess player," he said. "The athlete who wins uses logical, analytical

mastery. Stupid athletes rarely succeed."

We also saw Cuba's state-of-the-art Anti Doping Control Laboratory that is

expecting IOC accreditation this week, enabling Havana to have a more

extensive drug-testing capability than all the cities of the US put


Later, the towering figure of Javier Sotomayor, the former Cuban high jump

champion who is now blind in one eye, arrived at the Pan American stadium

with an armful of books. He tells us that he has entered the second part of

his life.

The National Commission for Attention to Former Athletes looks after 6,000

retired elite athletes and their families. From the day they retire, their

skills are directed towards assisting their successors, be it as coaches, administrators or general support. Three years of studying for a masters

degree to do so comes first.

Britain's sporadic success in different sports has for too long been built

on luck and chance opportunity. In Cuba, luck plays second string to a

system designed to identify and develop talent from an early age. Such a

system places coaching and respect for coaches centre stage.

If this were Britain, it would mean Daley Thompson managing the next

generation of British decathletes as a part of a commonplace approach.

Sotomayor will be on the Athens management team as an inspiration and


The Higher Institute for Athlete Training, the pinnacle of an elite

structure that radiates in centres around Cuba, employs 176 coaches. Their

objective is to regard every one of the 1,200 elite athletes "in the round"

for their competitive career, give them a full-time education to prepare

them for life and look after their families.

In Cuba, coaching is king and good coaches need development plans as

comprehensive as the most detailed training programme for athletes.

Permanent succession planning is central to the system. The institute's

director said: "We know the five volleyball coaches from whom the lead coach

will be drawn to take charge of the squad in 20 years. And we have 25,000

athletes identified for the next Olympic cycle and 10,000 children preparing

for next year's School Olympics."

Whether they will be competing in Havana in the 2012 Olympic Games seems

unlikely. The deck is stacked against Cuba, but that will not deter Havana

from bidding. José Ramon Fernandez, their IOC delegate and president of the

Cuban Olympic Committee, an octogenarian with fond memories of his days as

aide-de-camp to Winston Churchill when in 1946 the former Prime Minister was

en route to speak in the US, has a twinkle in his eyes. It is no surprise

that he heads their Olympic bid and is rightly listened to in IOC corridors.

His full-time, ten-man bid team is nearing completion of its initial

submission. This may not be gold-studded. It will be designed to be smaller.

There will be fewer invitees, more modest facilities and "at the centre, the

athletes and their performance". Recognition of the scale of their challenge

is never far from the surface. Later in the day, a technical adviser to the

bid said: "We may be dreaming a little bit, but sometimes dreams come true.

It is not on the grounds of sport that Cuba would be defeated. It is in the

hardware of hotels, infrastructure and massive financial commitments. The

Olympic movement needs our bid; it needs to take our dreams seriously and

recognise that good practice is good practice everywhere."

Throughout the past three days in Cuba, the respect shown by Juantorena and

Coe for each other, as they sat together in the IAAF Council, was

self-evident. Coe's late arrival on the scene of the London Olympic bid will

give an immeasurable boost to the capital's chances as the most prominent

ambassador for sport Britain has had in a generation. If he is given a free

rein and a bed in Heathrow's Terminal 4, the bid can go places; we must

recognise his contribution and begin to convince politicians from the top

down of the benefit sport can bring to strengthening international

relations, building trust, respect and support.

In Britain, Bill Rammell, MP, the Foreign Office minister responsible for

relations with Cuba, has a commitment to constructive dialogue with the

country. His commitment also to sport provides an opportunity. The way is

prepared for him to engage directly with Cuba on sport exchanges and to

build on the pioneering work of Sir Rodney Walker's signature on a rare

memorandum of understanding between UK Sport and the Cuban Minister for

Sport last year.

Moreover, we need to secure another IOC vote should Cuba's bid fail. The

language of sport can be a key foreign policy theme and a key to unlocking

that end. If he succeeds, he will deserve our respect and a large Hemingway

daiquiri in El Floridita.

* Colin Moynihan, an Olympic silver medal-winner in rowing in 1980, was

Minister for Sport from 1987 to 1990 and is now the Opposition spokesman on


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