For many of us, the news of the United States and Cubas recent political thawing was the first we’ve thought about the island in some time. Since the 1960’s it’s been an intriguing and mysterious place for American’s, but not one we often think of with regard to sports excellence. That is of course unless you’re an avid baseball fan, where the annual arrival of new Cuban ball players in America is big news in each of the Major League Baseball markets. Like the country in general, the player’s arrival in America and their life before their big league careers is largely a mystery. All we know as fan’s in America is that these new players are thrust onto a national stage and handed millions of dollars. More incredibly, most seem to thrive in this new reality.
As licensed tour operator, we at ProActive Sports tours were given a special opportunity to be one of the first non-academic groups to visit Cuba, and the first to open relations with the world of Cuban sports. We met with the directors of Cuban baseball and spoke to representatives from National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER); all with the hope of opening new avenues for American sports teams to compete against the teams of this intriguing island.
From the beginning, the revolutionary government made success in sport and personal physical fitness one of its primary objectives. In America we see the Cuban baseball stars in our league, and occasionally we see the Olympic medals won in boxing, track and field, or volleyball. We don’t however often take the time to reflect on how such a small population, so close yet cut off from our mainland, could generate this type of talent. Inevitably the thought process must lead us to the assumption that the athletic development system in Cuba must be fantastic to produce such champions. The tightly controlled, top down approach of the Cuban government is evident on the island in all facets of life. The government, albeit with intrusions upon personal freedom, and INDER have created special sports schools for young people that show a high level of potential in their chosen sport. These competitive sport specific environments, combined with top coaching, overcome the lack of well-funded facilities to produce world class athletes capable of winning international competitions regularly.
What does this all mean for an American athlete or coach? As the relations between the US and Cuba become more normalized, Cuba instantly becomes one of the most unique and easy to visit (flights from Miami are less than 45 minutes) countries in the world where top level competition exists. Cuba is the ideal destination for baseball teams of course, but basketball, volleyball, and even soccer teams would be remiss to not consider a trip to the island. Teams from all of the aforementioned sports will find competition capable of challenging even a top Division 1 program.