A single newspaper cannot encapsulate the stature of a man such as Fidel; that would require more space than exists in the world. He is, for this suffering planet, one of the indispensable that German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht spoke of, one of those who fight their whole life.
And of course, no stadium could hold the immense humanity of a man also experienced in the practice of sports. At the University of Havana, he was akin to Alberto Juantorena running the 400 or 800 meters, the distances the “elegant runner” dominated at the 1976 Montreal Olympics exactly 40 years ago, securing an unprecedented two gold medals.
At the Colegio de Belén prep school, wearing jersey number 6, Fidel proved to be a skilled basketball player, a forward with great energy and precision at the hoop. He is remembered for his appearances, dressed in his baseball uniform, at the Latinoamericano Stadium; his fondness for fishing and swimming; his interest in mountain climbing. The latter, which he did extensively, dressed in his olive green uniform, not only built his physique, but resulted in one of the most humane works the world has ever known: the Cuban Revolution.
Perhaps no other person inflicted a greater defeat on the sporting Fidel Castro Ruz as Gilberto Suárez. Born in Jamaica, Suárez was chosen, aged 17, to fight against the boy who would later become the most astute guerrilla leader, in a makeshift boxing ring in his native Birán. Suárez dodged several blows, showing off his boxing skills, from which he earned his living. On landing a hook to Fidel’s stomach, he put an end to the fight. But the Jamaican did not forget Fidel, he became a true champion of one of the great gains of the Revolution led by his “adversary”. Following the triumph of the Revolution, Suárez graduated as a teacher and taught singing, sports and English.
Suárez is a reflection of a nation that became a sporting world power, precisely because their leader recognized, as few others, the values of this social activity. On November 19, 1961, Fidel stated that “Sport not only aids physical health, not only helps build character, it not only helps forge strong-bodied and spirited men, but also encourages the people, entertains the people, makes the people happy.”
Fidel himself was an example. “Nobody knows just how beneficial sports, exercise, can be in life, and we have experience of this. We had the opportunity to play sports and sport helped us in many stages; the sports we had practiced helped us in the difficult moments of the revolutionary struggle, when we had to live in the woods and when we had to make huge physical efforts,” he said in September, 1964, when he also noted: ”Sport and physical education will not take up space from studies, but will strengthen students’ studies.”
On the basis of these ideas, sport was cemented as a right of the people and from this perspective, a world power was built. In March 1961, at a time when there were scarcely any physical education and sports teachers, when these activities were available to just 0.25% of the population, Fidel stated, “Sport is an activity that is going to be popularized and spread to a dimension that many can’t possibly imagine now.”
More than 50,000 higher education graduates; Sports Initiation Schools in all provinces; the University of Physical Culture and Sports Sciences; the Institute of Sports Medicine; the Anti-doping Laboratory, more than 12,000 sporting and physical education facilities from the first grade onward, the unthinkable was made a reality. Cuba is ranked 18th in the all-time Olympic Games medal table, the only Latin American country among the top twenty, and one of 94 of the 206 International Olympic Committee member countries to have obtained a gold medal in the 120 years of the Games. The island is one of the eighteen countries to have secured seventy or more Olympic gold medals and one of the twenty-one to have featured on the medal podium over 200 times, and the only third world country to have occupied a place among the top ten on five occasions.
Always showing great foresight, in one of his Reflections, A Gold Medal For Honor, written on August 24, 2008, Fidel wrote “…we are resting on our laurels,” which was nothing new, he had warned as such long before in this collection of ideas to which we should continually reference in order to preserve what has been achieved. In October, 1975, in conversation with the victorious delegation to the Pan American Games in Mexico, he noted: “Not resting on our laurels is the first thing we have to think about when celebrating our victories.” Today, in sport and in any other sphere, this remains a key principle.
Speaking to young athletes on October 22, 1973, Fidel made a claim that surely he would not hesitate to repeat even at his eternally young age of 90: “If I were to be born in this age, do you know what I would want to be? A sportsman.”