Alberto Juantorena maintains his belief in the Cuban way

Campaign News | Wednesday, 14 December 2011

He's a legend of the five-ringed circus, but money still can't buy Alberto Juantorena, writes Rick Broadbent in the Times and the Australian

He's a legend of the five-ringed circus, but money still can't buy Alberto Juantorena, writes Rick Broadbent in the Times and the Australian

Alberto Juantorena, who won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics, recently visited a London school where a child asked how much his medals were worth. The man they call El Caballo (The Horse) didn't know. Nobody had asked him the question before. Perhaps that is Britain's problem.

As London gets its head around an pound stg. 81 million ($125m) budget for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, it is fascinating to sit with a product of the Cuban revolution, who won the 400m and 800m titles in Montreal. It's trite to term Juantorena simply an Olympic legend; this imposing figure is also a part-time politician and paid-up visionary who says he knows the secret of success.

"Chess," he declares, the voice of suave ribaldry fading to a whisper. "You know the spirit and heart of chess in my country?" he asks. "Che Guevara."

A mural of the revolutionary is above us on the wall of a cluttered office belonging to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in London.

"He was the promoter of chess in my country, and knew that it helped a student look for a solution. It teaches you how to think, so chess is a sport we implant into minds. It's taught from primary school to university. It's essential."

State-sponsored board games seem a leap of faith from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Juantorena completed the "impossible" double of 400m and 800m, and yet his faith in the Cuban system is unassailable.

His blueprint for success taps into debates about Xbox motivations and 2012 legacies.

"The reason we are so successful is because we focus on children," he says. "In primary school they are taught physical education three times a week. We have 2.5 million students practising this. It's the system combined with the intelligence of the people. That's why we have 78,000 PE teachers. That's why we are a small country which wins medals."

In Cuba this took a revolution; London will have to make do with a two-week knees-up. Juantorena, now an ursine 61, paints a rosy red picture of communist Cuba and believes it punches above its weight because it values sport properly. Thank Fidel Castro for that.

"When I came home from Montreal in 1976 I was the first to descend the plane," he says. "Fidel was there. We embraced. We talked of many things and I realised he was a 100 metres runner. He told me he won in the 1946 inter-college competition. He said, 'I had a long stride, like you'.

"Fidel was the philosopher who created sport in my country. After the revolution, it did not matter what race, religion or gender you were, you had the opportunity to practise sport."

Juantorena left Castro at the airport and went back to work.

"I volunteered to pick coffee, cut sugar cane and plant vegetables," he says. "I did that for two weeks. My medals did not belong to me. Other athletes dedicated medals to their families; I dedicated mine to the anniversary of the Moncada Garrison because they gave Cuba freedom."

His success in Montreal is unlikely to be repeated. He was a 400m specialist recovering from two operations on his foot until his Polish coach, Zygmunt Zabier-zowski, had a brainwave.

"'One day,' he said, 'you will run the 800 in the next Olympics' and I jumped as high as Javier Sotomayor (the Olympic high jump champion). I was afraid. I thought I'd be too tired. I'd lose everything. But he tried me with the long-distance runners. They tried to kill me and they couldn't. So he put me in a race in Italy. It was the first time I'd run 800m in my life and I ran 1min 45.76sec."

He is grinning widely now. "I went to the Olympics and became the only man in history to run on every day of the athletics program. They changed the schedule for me and started calling me El Caballo the horse."

Commentator David Coleman went further. "The big Cuban opened his legs and showed his class," he said, thus starting an industry in commentating gaffes.

American rival Rick Wohlhuter had said that Juantorena would be unable to cope with the 800m rounds, but his classy three-metre stride resulted in magic as well as mirth and he set a world record. "My coach said that because of my 400 speed, a first lap of 50 seconds would be like walking. I hung back and hung back. Wohlhuter was crazy. He went on the outside and so ran 820 metres. In the last 20 metres (Belgian) Ivo Van Damme got the silver."

An unspectacular qualification for the 400m final exhumed double doubts. "I was in the lane two. That's the second killing lane, but I had an advantage because I could see them all. I was so confident. I was not running but floating and then, boom, in the last 50 I killed them all."

Thus an Olympic hero was created. He became a celebrity and yet remained humble, even when taking on roles such as vice-president of INDER, the Cuban sports institute that once set up 31 sports centres in the Escambray Mountains because Castro felt the remote region was a source of untapped potential.

Juantorena does not accept many interviews and his patriotism may appear one-eyed in the wake of numerous defections.

The country's leading baseball team, Industriales, has struggled this season after seven players fled the country. Add five National Ballet dancers and a star soccer player, who shimmied down a hotel fire escape in North Carolina, and it's clear that the monthly government salary the equivalent of $US16 does not suit all. Olympic champions fare better with a lifetime monthly stipend of $US300, but can Castro's ideals survive the modern age?

"It is not a big problem but it becomes big propaganda," Juantorena says. "The press say Cubans are running from the system because they are oppressed, because they kill people, because they put people in jail, but this is bullshit. I feel sorry for them. The socialist system gave me all possibilities and all they asked was that I stayed loyal and said thank you."

Britain has a former Cuban triple jumper in its track team. Yamile Aldama's story is complex, but she competed for Sudan after leaving Cuba with her Scottish husband. Now she has a British passport and was fifth at the world championships, one of the so-called "plastic Brits".

"I know her very well," Juantorena says. "She decided to abandon Cuba and went to this place and that place. It's her own decision. I am strongly against the trafficking of athletes who change country from one day to the next. They are selling themselves as merchandise. The real person, the real human being who loves their country, believes in something and never changes their allegiance. You have to be honest and follow your dignity. Now you see some guy and he is not able to even sing the national anthem."

Cuba dropped from fifth in the Olympic medals table in 1992 to 28th by 2008 but Juantorena insists defections do not add up to a defect in the system. It is just increasingly hard to compete.

When the country's biggest athletics star, hurdler Dayron Robles, was disqualified from the gold medal position at the world championships, he said that it was because he came from Cuba. Juantorena rejected any conspiracy theories but said he agreed.

Whether Cuba can continue to punch above its weight in London remains to be seen, but El Caballo is convinced. "This system works," he said. "You cannot go through sport or life motivated only by money."

He plays with his gold medal; the other is in a museum in Havana for the people. Even in a five-ring circus, with cynics pointing to its budget as proof that the Olympics are more corporate carve-up than sporting carnival, some things cannot be bought.

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