The lounge is relatively small. There is not enough space on its walls for all the pictures and awards accumulated over his career, so many are displayed in another room where dozens of photos, prizes, books, and medals coexist.
We are in a house in Santa María del Rosario, on the outskirts of Havana. Sitting on a comfortable sofa is a burly 70-year-old man who holds a porcelain figurine of Jigoro Kano, the Japanese founder of judo.
His name is Ronaldo Veitía. For some he is “el Veiti,” to others “el profe,” and for most, regardless of what they call him, he is a figure who made history in this combat sport, to become a “giant of the tatami.”
Less than a month ago, in the Azerbaijani city of Baku, Veitía was inducted into the International Judo Federation (IJF) Hall of Fame. He is the third Cuban to achieve such a feat, after Héctor Rodríguez (2013) and Driulis González (2015), and the first coach to obtain such an award.
His face lit up by the happiness of those who feel they have fulfilled their duty, and with the well-earned prize in his hands, Veitía smiles as we converse.
“It is a joy that I compare with what I felt at that moment in 2011 when I was awarded the recognition of Labor Hero of the Republic of Cuba. This award summarizes all my sacrifice and the number of years dedicated to sport. That the International Federation has awarded me this honor after retiring is a big thing.”
Over thirty years ago, when the Cuban women’s judo team did not even have a Pan-American title to its name, did you ever dream of the results later obtained, and maintained today?
Yes, of course. There is an axiom that says: Women are like a crossword puzzle; once you find the vertical word, you need the horizontal. Sometimes they are somewhat unpredictable, but that is what makes them interesting, and I always dreamed of great results with the women’s team, and I had confidence in them.
Among the many students that you have had, including some Olympic and World champions, who do you particularly remember?
I never say the name of any one athlete, as I would be overlooking the others. I have a special affection for all of them, because the fact that I am a globally recognized judo coach is not up to me, but thanks to them - to their guts, their spirit and their courage.
When I started training with them, there was a widespread myth that women couldn’t undertake certain efforts such as lifting weights, press-ups, rope climbing... and we started to go against that and apply those methods in training. Clearly, we proved that we were not wrong.
Directing female athletes gave me such joy that afterwards I said I would never train men again. When we began to gain so many results, I realized that the Comandante en Jefe was right when he said: Without women, the enormous work of the Revolution would not have been possible. And it’s certainly true.
Ronaldo looks up at the wall in front of him, where two small photos appear. In one, he fervently greets Fidel, receiving the team upon returning from a competition. In the other, he is pictured serious, in front of the monolith that holds the remains of the revolutionary leader in Santiago de Cuba. A few seconds of silence interrupt our conversation.
As you mentioned the Comandante en Jefe, almost two years after his death, what memories can you offer about the Cuban leader?
I respectfully call him “Papá Fidel.” Everything that our country has, everything that our sport has, and all the battles we have won, everything is imbued with its spirit.
We recently went to where his remains lie, and it was a very emotional trip, because I believe that he is always present. I usually tell people that Cuban athletes took drugs; they used doping – but that doping was to offer the joy of victory to the people and their leaders. The team was able to make the whole country cry with joy.
What have been the most satisfying moments of your sporting career?
The most glorious moment was when Cuba won medals. We have 25 Olympic medals and six of them are gold; also 57 world medals, of them 16 world champions. In Sydney 2000, we dominated the discipline of women’s judo, and those were unforgettable moments.
And I‘ve been rewarded personally. For example, when I decided to retire, in Japan, the country where judo was founded and which has had hegemony of the sport, they offered me a farewell and a tribute. It was the first time that such recognition was granted to a foreign coach in Japan, so you can imagine what great joy I felt.
And difficult times...?
When I retired as coach of the national team. There is a phrase that says you can’t always do what you want, but you do have the right to do what others don’t want you to do. As a result of a lack of appreciation and certain situations, I decided to opt for that maxim that suggests that he who doesn’t respect your presence, must be given your absence and, in the end, history doesn’t forget you.
Is there still much to do?
Yes, there is still much to be done in women’s judo. I also think that some mistakes have been made in management policies and other issues, which have led to three different coaches being assigned to lead the team since my retirement. At one point, I wanted to offer some opinions about aspects that I considered negative, but they didn’t listen to me sufficiently.
Personally, I have many things to do, one never stops. There is recognition that I didn’t receive, and recently they told me that I have been nominated to be awarded the title Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Matanzas, and that was also a dream of mine.
I confess that after my retirement, I couldn’t imagine myself doing nothing, so I decided to take up a community project to practice the sport. As part of the Primavera initiative, we have an academy where we teach judo to children between five and 15 years of age. Most of them come from a transient community of the locality and I believe not only in the talent they have for the sport, but in the power that it has to make them better people.
An emotional anecdote that you recall from your career?
I remember that in Sydney 2000, Legna Verdecia won and I raised the Cuban flag. Then someone tried to take it away from me arguing that this was a way to politicize the event, and I pushed him, because whoever doesn’t respect my country, doesn’t respect me. That cost me a day without directing the team, but I couldn’t ignore it. I returned once authorized to do so, and in that competition the team really threw themselves into it, and for the first time we took the lead in women’s judo at the Olympic Games.
It’s raining outside. Veitía gazes at the horizon through the open window, as if trying to relive that glorious moment in which he vindicated himself as a giant of the tatami. A giant as prominent as the glory of the flag they tried to snatch from him, or the dignity of a people who watch him proudly.