EVER since the early years of the Revolution, Fidel Castro stood out – among many other areas – for his concerted efforts to give sport the importance it deserved and transform it into a strong mass movement.
1961 was marked by the Revolution’s victory in April over the mercenary invasion at Playa Girón and the success of the National Literacy Campaign, achievements which were recognized throughout Latin America at a time when the government of John F. Kennedy was threatening to launch a new wave of aggression against the island; pressuring puppet governments on the continent to break ties with Cuba, just as Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt did in November that same year, sparking protests by the people of that sister nation.
Thus, from the very beginning of the Cuban Revolution, this conviction to resist and press forward, which still exists today, began to take shape; as the conditions imposed by our northern neighbor would not stop our determination to create a strong, healthy people, ready to face any situation. However, in addition to rethinking different spheres of daily life, we also needed to draw-up a new plan for sports, completely change its organizational structure, and get the entire population involved.
A key moment in the history of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (Inder), which was founded on February 23, 1961, was its First National Plenary, which took place November 18-19 in the six provinces which existed at that time. The event served to draw-up action plans and create the Voluntary Sporting Councils (CVD), which were set up across the island, with the support of over 100,000 activists.
During the congress’ closing ceremony Fidel summed up the outcomes of the event to an auditorium of women and men willing to create 6,000 CVDs in municipalities, neighborhoods, factories, cooperative farms, and wherever possible in order to promote physical education and sports.
Also participating in the Plenum were representatives from the Association of Young Rebels (AJR), Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI), National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), and Cuban Workers’ Federation (CTC), whose founder and President, Lázaro Peña, also spoke before attendees.
Fidel’s key ideas regarding sports expressed during that November conference continue to be relevant today; above all those linked to the work of the school and family to create healthy individuals, able to use their skills for the benefit of society. As such great importance has been placed on inter-school events and the Youth and School Games, among other competitions, toward improving the health of Cuba’s youth and increasing the number of potential high performance athletes - a goal which can only be achieved by revitalizing work at a grass roots level; providing local solutions to material shortages; and supporting the development of coaches, despite current economic limitations.
“We must strive to support physical education and sports in elementary and high schools, in factories, on farms, among cooperatives and all mass organization chapters,” stated Fidel at the end of the National Plenary as he looked toward the future, and toward launching a movement that would erase the picture inherited from Cuba’s capitalist past, where only 0.25% of the population practiced a sport.
It was important to “spark the population’s interest in sports, which had been frustrated in the past, considered an activity off-limits to humble people,” stated the then Prime Minister.
The CVDs were also tasked with opening sports up to women in different disciplines, and promoting exercise among the population, an initiative which saw the introduction of physical efficiency tests also known as LPVs (Listos Para Vencer – Ready to Overcome) and the common Fisminutos, during which staff would get together briefly in their workplace every day to exercise.
Fidel was convinced that “it is impossible for a mass sporting movement like the one occurring in Cuba, not to produce an extraordinary number of genuine athletes.” And he wasn’t wrong, as Cuba’s successful results in the Central American and Caribbean, Pan American, and Olympic Games, to cite just a few multi-discipline events, have shown.
Today, with the global expansion of scientific-technical innovations in sports, and at a time when participation in international events has become more expensive, Inder is gradually contracting its athletes to compete for foreign clubs where, it is believed, they will be provided with the necessary conditions to reach their full potential, and at the same time improve their economic situation, all the while adhering to the guiding principles of Cuba’s sporting policy. What is more, shortcomings still exist with regard to organizing national championship competitions, which have been called on not only to contribute toward improving the health of youngsters, but also boosting the numbers of potential high-performance athletes.
The preservation of human values was a subject which concerned Fidel throughout his life, and one he believed collective work to be essential; because sport “teaches us to strive, to be disciplined, to work in a team, because that is how sports are generally played, in a team, and that’s how we learn to work together,” he stated.
Fidel loved sports. It was something that he lived and felt, accompanying and enjoying Cuba’s feats in countless competitions. His everlasting example can be summed up well in one of his remarks from the closing ceremony of Inder’s National Plenary in 1961: “This is why sports is such a fantastic activity, which not only supports physical health, but also helps to build character, not only helps to forge people of strong body and spirit, but also nourishes the people, occupies the people, motivates the people, and makes the people happy.”
Later, November 19 became National Physical Education and Sports Day.