Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cuban Fight Knocked Out


(The Express, UK, August 7, 2008)

By John Dillon


THIS is the Games of the new dawn in the east but the shifts of the
global economy deliver knockouts as well as bonuses. On sport's Hang
Seng index of competitive health, it has dumped the Olympic staple of
Cuban boxing into the tumbling section of the market.

Britain has sent a record-sized team of eight fighters to Beijing but,
for the first time in 40 years, Havana's revered Communist talent
factory has failed to secure a qualifier in all 11 divisions.

Only two of those here are favoured to follow the pathway of triple
gold medallists Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon.

These days, funding from UK Sport of about GBP 75,000 a year per boxer
may have given Britain something near equality with Fidel Castro's
celebrated system of ensuring that great fighters remained amateurs
throughout their careers by making them heroes of his revolution.

One of his finest ring soldiers, Mario Kindelan, denied Amir Khan a
gold medal in Athens.

Now another Cuban, the lightweight Yordenis Ugas, may present the most
difficult challenge to Britain's best gold medal hope here, Frankie
Gavin, 22, who became our first world amateur champion last year.

But the lure of professionalism and the blight of mass defections to
the good life means Cuba have only one other fancied contender, the
heavyweight Osmay Acosta.

For an island which has won 32 gold medals in the ring, this
represents a major decline which reflects modern economic realities as
accurately as Beijing's countless glass towers. Only from the
downside. It is not only Kindelan's retirement which has diminished
the power of the world's toughest fighting outpost.

Three of the 2004 champions, Odlanier Solis, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Yan
Barthelemy, fled from a training camp in Venezuela two years ago and
said afterwards they had been forced to sell their medals to buy food.

They are professionals now in Germany.

The remaining Olympic winner, Guillermo Rigondeaux, was kicked out of
the team after a failed attempt to defect in Brazil in 2007.

As increased globalisation and the internet dangled Western riches
before the eyes of Cuba's athletes, so their resistance to temptation
began to crumble.

"The circumstances force you to make sacrifices and it's a shame, "
said Barthelemy. "In the old days, Olympic athletes were well taken
care of and lived a more privileged life in Cuba. But things had
become so bad that we weren't much better off than anyone else.

"I was worrying about food for my family. The only difference was that
we got to travel and see how the rest of the world lives. I'll always
be Cuban and proud of my heritage, but I had to follow my dream." When
Stevenson won the second of his heavyweight gold medals in Montreal
1976, he was offered $5million to turn professional and fight Muhammad
Ali. He was tempted but turned it down and said:

"What is $5m compared to the love of eight million Cubans?" Gavin's
rival Ugas was a world champion in 2005, but Cuba refused to send a
team to last year's event in Chicago. They feared more defections.

US assistant boxing coach Mike Stafford said: "This team are not as
experienced as they've been before. And the defections might continue
because kids are more aware of the world now.

Promoters are going after those Cuban kids and it's hard to keep them
from chasing their dream." The mentor of Britain's surge in amateur
boxing, coach Terry Edwards, says he will face problems diverting his
talents from the paid ranks too.

"This is our most talented team of boxers in recent years. I they box
to their potential, they will convert performances to medals, " he
said.

Once, such promises were made without fear of contradiction in the
steaming gyms of Havana.

The changing world which created these Games of the booming Pacific
rim has also taken apart the most remarkable sporting achievement of
the fading old Red revolution.

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