Cuba is in an Olympic Downslide

Games and Rings
3 min readJun 2, 2021

Cuban Baseball’s Olympic Qualification Collapse Continues a Downward Trend

Cuba has a storied history of success in the Olympic Games. Since its Games debut at Paris 1900, its much-vaunted boxers have won 73 medals (second only to the United States), and its fabled baseball program has won three of five golds (and won silver the other two times). Outside of those two signature sports, Cuba has made its mark in other sports, notably track & field, judo, wrestling, and even fencing. The women’s volleyball team won three straight golds between 1992 and 2000, with a bronze in 2004.

Felix Savon won three Olympic boxing titles (IOC)

At Barcelona 1992, Cuba hit its high point in the medal count — 31 total, and fifth place in the medal count. Those were the Games of high jumper Javier Sotomayor, boxer Felix Savon, and middle-distance runner Ana Quirot. Boxers, including Savon, won nine of 12 possible medals (including seven gold). Women’s volleyball started their three-gold streak. Judo and wrestling saw gold medal wins, too. Cuba won the inaugural baseball tournament.

For the next four Games, the island nation experienced a consistent level of high performance: 25 medals at Atlanta 1996, 29 at Sydney 2000, 27 at Athens 2004, and 30 at Beijing 2008. Those years, there was an admirable sense of Cuba being able to ‘punch above its weight’ in its success. Despite increasing isolation as a lone socialist state burdened by economic sanctions, its athletic programs remained a vibrant, vital area of showcase pride for the nation.

But the last two Olympics has seen its star power ebb. Cuba managed only 15 medals at London 2012 and 11 at Rio 2016. As well, after reaching s econd in the Pan American Games medal table in 2011, Cuba dropped to fourth in 2015 and sixth in 2019.

Cuba won three Olympic baseball titles starting in 1992

And now, and despite its legendary aura in the sport, Cuba will not qualify for Tokyo 2020’s baseball tournament. Given its recent slide — in the WBSC Premier12 event in 2019, Cuba ranked tenth and last alongside Netherlands and Puerto Rico — the result in qualifying isn’t too surprising. But the Cuban absence will be noticed given the team’s legacy in the sport. For sentiment’s sake, one hopes Cuban baseball doesn’t follow that lead and can make a comeback in time for Los Angeles 2028. But history is not a promising guide.

That women’s volleyball team of the mid-to-late 1990s suffered a similar fall. After just missing the podium in fourth place at Beijing 2008, the team has failed to make an Olympics since. They placed 21st and 22nd in the last two World Championships, and came nowhere near Tokyo 2020 qualification after finishing sixth in the 2019 NORCECA Championship, with the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico ahead and taking bragging rights for current Caribbean power.​

Discus thrower Yaime Pérez is a medal threat at Tokyo 2020

As far as the nation’s boxers, they will again be standard bearers, with Tokyo 2020 qualification in each of the eight men’s weight classes (but note, no women’s). Collectively, the Tokyo-bound team already has six Olympic medals dating from as far back as Beijing 2008 — a sign of longevity, but also of a lack of younger athletes breaking through. Judo, wrestling, and track & Field again promise the best chance for medal support to boxing this summer, but the nation will probably be hard-pressed to significantly improve its results from Rio 2016.

Cuba’s sport prowess has certainly diminished. Has the difficulty in maintaining a consistently strong sports development feeder system in its closed society finally taken a toll? There’s a good opportunity for a socio-economic study in the question. In the meantime, this summer’s Games quickly approach. Can Cuba again rise to consistent sporting heights?

Originally published at https://www.gamesandrings.com.

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Games and Rings

An Olympic sports fan with an Olympic sports fan blog. Follow me celebrating Olympic sports athletes, with a cheeky twist @ gamesandrings.com