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Olympic Games Countdown: Cuban miracle suggests small is beautiful

Shakur Stevenson
Action Images/Peter Cziborra
Chris Kempson examines Cuba's extraordinary success in the Olympic Games

IT is nothing short of a sporting miracle that the island nation of Cuba stands second to the might of the United States in terms of Olympic boxing medals. Cuba, a mere ninety miles from the United States has a population of around eleven million, the United States has over thirty times that number in its population. The United States has a huge medal haul of 110, Cuba has 67. For all the differences in population, they do share one sporting similarity, baseball being the most popular sport in each of their countries!

The United States has sent boxers to twenty-two 0lympic Games since 1904, only boycotting the event in Moscow in 1980; whereas Cuba entered their first and then only boxer in Rome in 1960 and have entered in a further eleven Games. They boycotted those in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul, four years later. You will see that from a total of twelve Games they have averaged over five medals per Games; even more remarkable when you consider that they did not win their first medal until 1968 (two silvers in fact); which increases their overall medal ratio to almost seven per Games.

For all their longevity in the Games the United States has a mere sixteen more golds than their tiny neighbour, what that really says about them or indeed Cuba is open to debate and interpretation, for my part it demonstrates the colossal strides Cuba has made in the sport of amateur boxing, without doubt one realistic way of looking at the issue.

Cuba’s first medallists (both silver) in Mexico City in 1968 were at light-welterweight- Enrique Regueiferos and light-middleweight- Rolando Garbey. They placed their country on the medal table and have not looked back ever since. Cuba really burst upon the Olympic scene in Munich in 1972 with three gold medals including a title for the late Teofilo Stevenson who was also awarded the coveted Val Barker Trophy. Stevenson an iconic legend in the amateur code went on to complete his hat trick of Olympic golds and he and compatriot Felix Savon are the only two men in Olympic boxing history to achieve this feat. Incredible achievements for a small island nation who for so long dutifully followed a communist political philosophy. Much of their medal success has been achieved by their own “lefties”, in this case their boxers operating out of a southpaw stance!

Three more golds followed in 1976, that was upped to five in Moscow in 1980; while following their own “self imposed exile” in 1984 and 1988 a staggering eight golds were harvested in Barcelona in 1992. For the Games in 1992, a Qualifying system was introduced by AIBA who became concerned about the physical demand on boxers with an ever increasing number of entries.

Cuba ploughed on securing four golds in 1996 and four again in Sydney 2000. In 2004, this was raised to five golds, then the unthinkable happened in Beijing in 2008 when no golds were brought home to Havana. However, four silvers and four bronzes were achieved, but it was unusual not to have the Cuban anthem sounding at these finals. In London 2012, Cuba was back on track, albeit modestly so with just a pair of gold medals.

Testimony to this great amateur boxing country, in 1992 and 1992 and 2000, they had twelve entrants in the overall weight categories; eleven in 2004, ten in 2008 and eight for London 2012; maybe, in some small way, the world was just beginning to catch up with the Cuban trail blazers

Also, keen eyed amateur boxing “watchers” might assume that the absence of gold in Beijing followed by two golds in London 2012, might suggest that the medal power of without doubt the most successful amateur boxing nation in modern times could perhaps be on the wane. Cuba will remain under pressure from gigantic countries like China who are flexing their boxing muscles as well as the former Soviet Republics who are now flourishing in their own right, as well as from the Indian Continent and Asia too. I suppose the notion that Cuban prowess is faltering, might just hold some water, maybe Rio 2016 will give us some indication whether this may or may not be the case. For my part, I won’t be holding my breath, Cuba, if it needs to, will rise again up the medal table as it has done in the past.

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