The Cuban Evolution

Cuba has clinched eight boxing medals in Beijing, one for flyweight Andris Laffita Hernandez.
Cuba has clinched eight boxing medals in Beijing, one for flyweight Andris Laffita Hernandez. (By Cameron Spencer -- Getty Images)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 20 -- In a flurry of blue gloves flashing beneath arena lights, Andris Laffita Hernandez fought Wednesday night. He fought for country. He fought for the medal he will wear back to his island, knowing the admiration of 11 million people will now be his.

"This is in honor of the people of Cuba," he said through an interpreter in a hallway under the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium, where he clinched another boxing medal for his country -- its eighth of the Olympics. "After I go back to Cuba I want to see all the Cuba people. They give me my encouragement."

Cuba was supposed to be done as a boxing giant. The proud monster that roared through the last four Olympics -- winning 28 medals, 18 of them gold -- had broken. In the last two years, Cuba lost five gold medalists from the 2004 Athens Olympics and a 2005 world champion. Gold medalists Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa defected while attending a team training camp in Venezuela in 2006 and signed professional contracts with a German promoter.

Another Olympian, Guillermo Rigondeaux, along with world champion Erislandy Lara, tried to run away after last summer's Pan American Games but were caught by Brazilian authorities, returned to Cuba and removed from the team. (Lara has since escaped the island.) Another gold medalist from 2004, Mario Kindelán, retired.

Desperate to not lose any more great fighters, Cuba moved to prevent more defections. It skipped last October's world championships in Chicago, choosing to attend just two Olympic qualifying tournaments in Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. It came to Beijing a mystery to the world, with fighters no one had heard of. They had no biographies, no statistics, no records. And because they were unknown, the assumption was that Cuban boxing had become quite ordinary.

On Wednesday, Jorge Guzman smiled at that thought. Standing on a red carpet outside the VIP section of the boxing venue, the head of Cuba's boxing federation said through an interpreter that he heard the talk that his country would falter, that the great Cuban boxing machine had gone dead. "People have always doubts about us but we show we are good and we are better," he said. "The doubters have been disproven. A lot of that has been proven by our performances."

The eight medals are almost as good as the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 when, Cuba rolled through the boxing competition with nine medals -- seven of them gold.

"The techniques are very fundamental," he said. "We have a lot of experience in preparing the athletes. We have a large base of fighters, we have lots of places we can get fighters from."

Then he went on to proclaim that Cuba has one of the finest training facilities, that it has the best team doctors and the best athletic training staff. Cuba's fighters get superior psychological training, he added. Athletes and coaches are almost always required to get university degrees. He said his boxing coaches have gone all over the world to help countries, including Ghana, China, India and Guatemala, improve their boxing programs.

He said he is proud of this group of Cuban fighters. He said that despite their age, they are well trained. They know what to expect, even in international competition.

Most of all, he does not expect they will defect the way the others have.

"We don't have any doubt that these boxers will stay," he said. "We have every trust in our boxers because we have trained them properly."

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