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
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