It is not unusual that, in a multi-sport event, a high percent of delegations are occupied by representatives of team sports, especially when several events of this type are programmed. This means many athletes competing for a small amount of prizes that usually ranges from 15 to 20 gold medals.
In the lead up to the upcoming Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla, Colombia, our delegation will be a clear example of the above, since it is estimated that about 40% of the total number of Cuban athletes will be competing in group events.
To gain a more accurate idea of the matter, we took as reference the latest confirmed qualifying rooster of March 24, a date by which Cuba had secured the presence in the Colombian coffee-producing region of 469 athletes, to fight for medals in 287 events. Of these, only 16 medals are up for grabs in team sports.
The distribution of these medal hopes sees four for volleyball (indoor and beach events for both sexes); three medals in basketball (male, female and 3x3 women’s basketball); one in baseball; and two in handball, field hockey, water polo and softball. Cuba failed to qualify for the football and the 3x3 men’s basketball events, while rugby 7 does not feature in the island’s high performance sports system.
As we can see, Cuba has few gold medal possibilities in team sports, and the final number could be even more reduced if the recent trend of poor performances in events that the island traditionally dominated in the region is maintained.
For example, in men’s basketball, Cuba has not taken to the podium since the Ponce 1993 Games, and the indications are that Barranquilla will not offer the best scenario to change this pattern, despite the fact that several national team players are signed with foreign leagues, attempting to raise their game.
The situation is similar with men’s handball, an event in which Cuba has not reached the top spot for 25 years, largely due to the migration of dozens of star players who previously led the island at the Olympic Games and World Championships, combined with the subsequent lack of athletes to take over from them.
Scarce international experience has also hit the men’s water polo team, which for 40 years continuously secured gold in this competition (1966-2006), and saw a streak of 50 matches undefeated (49 wins and one draw). Today, almost totally excluded from competitive scenarios, the reality is very different and winning in Barranquilla would be a tremendous surprise.
Then there is indoor volleyball for both sexes. The men’s and women’s teams have both seen 20 years without titles (the same is the case in softball), something previously unthinkable, as one of the island’s strongest sports.
The once fearsome women’s team, known as the “Morenas del Caribe,” accumulated 66 wins (54 of them consecutive) with a single setback (against Mexico in Panama 1970), from the edition of San Juan 1966 to Cartagena 2006; but since then have failed to secure gold, like the men, who remained on top for four decades (65 victories in a row from Kingston 1962 to Cartagena 2006).
Their path to climb to the top in Barranquilla is as high as Everest, taking into account the constant ups and downs and variability of recent roosters, which have, logically, hindered the stability and quality of results.
The other side of the coin is field hockey, winning gold in each of its 11 appearances at these Games, while women’s basketball has dominated in its last ten competitions, since Panama 1970, with an impressive balance of 60 wins (44 consecutive between 1970-1998) and only two defeats in that same period.
However, the renewal in the national team ranks will demand a greater effort to prolong the winning streak in the upcoming Colombian tournament, especially against the squads of Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The situation in baseball is similar, in which the Cuban team will face a tough round-robin competition.
WHY DOES EFFICIENCY MATTER SO MUCH?
As already noted, in a multi-sports event like the Central American and Caribbean Games, the fact that country delegations are largely made up of athletes in team sports is not unusual, but in order to dominate the overall medal table, it is necessary to also provide stellar performances in individual events, as will be the Cuban objective in Barranquilla.
Colombia and Mexico have around 300 qualifying athletes competing for just 21 medals in team modalities, but they also have more than 400 athletes chasing the majority of medals in individual sports.
Cuba will have a smaller delegation (estimated at 560 athletes and no more than 350 in individual events), a detail that will place considerable pressure on the traditional disciplines of athletics, shooting sports, artistic gymnastics, judo, wrestling, boxing, rowing and canoeing, which have the task of contributing more than 70% of the island’s gold medals.
I do not include fencing or weightlifting in this list, sports with great results for our country in the past, but with a more complex current reality. Among the foil, épée, and sabre, for example, no male athlete managed to secure gold at Veracruz 2014, while the Cuban women secured just two golds in the épée competitions, with Seily Mendoza as the protagonist.
Meanwhile, although the island’s weightlifters took seven gold medals at the Mexico Games, they will have a hard time repeating this success thanks to the tremendous development of this sport in Colombia, a nation that features in the world Top-10.
To make matters worse, Cuba is not strong in other multi-medal events such as swimming, speed skating, diving or synchronized swimming, which are likely to be dominated by regional rivals Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.
As such, any medal won in these events or in artistic gymnastics, weightlifting, cycling, wrestling or taekwondo, will be doubly valuable, representing an additional step forwards for the Cuban delegation, which is compelled to achieve one of the highest medal averages per athlete in its history.