One of the sports worst affected by the United States blockade of Cuba and the Special Period, which saw the island fall into a crippling economic crisis, is fencing.
Cuba, a former global powerhouse in this discipline in the 1980s and early 1990s, has suffered a notable decline over recent decades, so much so that it no longer features among the top countries in this sport in the region.
Given its long and successful history in the sport – and despite the rise of other nations – today Cuba ranks 12th on the World Championship country medal chart with six gold, six silver and nine bronze medals, reflecting the golden days of fencing on the island; markedly different to the current reality.
Following the results of the Women's Epee World Cup held in Havana last month, it was clear just how much remains to be done if the country is to return to the top spot. None of Cuba’s representatives managed to advance to the round of the 64 best fencers of the competition, a disappointing result.
“The majority of them were young athletes, making their debut in an international competition. However, the most important thing was that the athletes learned what it’s like to participate in an event of this level,” stated Aljhadis Bandera, president of the Cuban Fencing Federation, speaking to Granma.
Yamilka Rodríguez, the most experienced member of the national fencing team, noted low levels of participation in key tournaments of the World Championship circuit as one of the main obstacles to reviving this discipline.
“We need more opportunities; our chances of placing among the elite are directly proportional to our participation in the most important competitions.
The fact that we can’t see many of our opponents, not even on video, also affects our ability to draw up an adequate tactical plan,” stated Rodríguez
In this same vein, Pedro Enríquez, head coach of Cuba’s women’s fencing team, noted that “no matter how well we simulate competition conditions in the training hall, you’re never totally prepared for the real thing,” a reality which has also affected athletes’ global ranking, currently occupying low positions and facing stronger opponents right from the outset, placing them at a disadvantage.
Add to this a lack of equipment – which is very expensive to purchase – for training and the disappearance of institutions which support the development of young fencers, such as the Higher Schools of Athletic Improvement (ESPA), among other reasons, it’s easy to understand the challenge facing Cuba in its attempt to return to the top spot.
Nonetheless, starting last year Cuba has decided to participate in some of the most important events in the sport, including many youth competitions, such as the Pan American Junior and Cadet Championships and Junior World Fencing Championships.
“Our aim is to continue hosting events of this kind. We kicked off this 2018 with the Women's Epee World Cup, which saw the participation of 18 of the top 20 ranked fencers in the world. We were pleased with the event and hope to host it again next year,” stated Bandera.
“In June we are going to host the Continental Qualifiers for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games, with the participation of the majority of athletes from the hemisphere, including the entire U.S. and Canadian teams. We will also be seeing Venezuela and Mexico, teams which will provide a gauge by which to measure our performance looking toward the most important competition this year: the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla, Colombia,” stated the official.
Last year 18 Cuban fencers managed to qualify for the regional tournament in Colombia during the Central American Fencing Championships held in Puerto Rico.
“Our main aim will be to make a substantial contribution toward fulfilling our sporting movement’s dream of topping the country medal chart; this is our main mission,” Bandera concluded.