Stan Cole
Stan Cole

Stanley C. Cole

Stanley Clark Cole was a three-time Olympian who competed as a member of the United States water polo team. The Dover, Delaware native was a dominant scorer on the UCLA Bruins team, and went to his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. Cole went on to the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, scoring six of his 11 Olympic goals on the team that won bronze at the Munich Games. Serving as an officer in the US Navy, Cole was on the ship that picked up the famed astronauts of Apollo 13. Cole passed away on July 26, 2018, at the age of 72.

 

Valentina_RastvorovaValentina Rastvorova

Valentina Rastvorova was a three-time Olympic fencer on the Soviet Union team, competing in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo from 1956 to 1964. The Odessa native won gold in team foil, as well as silver in individual foil in 1960, as well as silver in team foil in 1964. She was married to a water polo player on the 1964 Soviet Union team, Boris Grishin, which won bronze in Tokyo. Their son, Yevgeny Grishin, won gold in Moscow and bronze in Seoul as a member of the Soviet water polo team. Rastvorova died on August 24, 2018 at the ate of 85.

 

Kurt HelmudtKurt Helmudt

Kurt Helmudt, at the age of 20, was the youngest member of the Danish coxless four rowing team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Helmudt was an engineer shipbuilder after his rowing career. He passed away at the age of 74 on September 7, 2018.

 

Ganpatrao AndalkarGanpatrao Andalkar

Ganpatrao Andalkar represented India in two different wrestling disciplines at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: as a middleweight in Greco-Roman and as a heavyweight in Freestyle competition.

Prior to Tokyo, Andalkar had captured gold and silver medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962. Andalkar passed away on September 16, 2018 in Pune, India.

 

Győző_Kulcsár_1970Győző Kulcsár

A four-time Olympian, fencer Győző Kulcsár of Hungary passed away on September 19, 2018. He was 77. The native of Budapest competed in the individual and team épée events at the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, garnering a total of six medals, including four golds.

Kulcsár would go on to become the Secretary General of the Hungarian Fencing Association in 1979, as well as the head coach of the Hungarian fencing team from 1980 to 1988.

 

Joseph MacBrienJoseph MacBrien

Sailing on the Dragon Boat, Serendipity, Joseph MacBrien, 39, teamed up with fellow Canadians Ed Botterell and Lynn Watters to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the waters of Enoshima. A Toronto native, MacBrien served in the Royal Canadian Navy as an Officer Cadet, as well as on British and Australian warships in WWII. As a pilot, he also flew 66 combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. MacBrien passed away on November 18, 2018 at the age of 94.

Abebe Bikila Avery Brundage Basketball Billy Mills Bob Hayes Boycotts Closing Ceremonies Cold War Dawn Fraser Diving Japan […]

George Gulack_1932_Tales of Gold
George Gulack, former AAU gymnastics chairman and gold medalist at the 1932 Olympics, from the book Tales of Gold

Imagine you have a sport growing in popularity, growing so quickly that it takes roots in countries all over the world, developing at different speeds, with slightly different rules depending on where it was played. When judo first began holding international competitions, a rift occurred between the rules that dictate judo in its birthplace, Japan, and the rest of the world.

Judo-ka in Japan were traditionally not classified by weight classes, so you would have a 90 kg judoka face off against a 60 kg judoka. International bodies believed that fairness could be better achieved by having people of similar weight compete, as has been done with success in boxing.

Who makes the rules? Who decides who goes to a national or an international competition? In the case of the Olympics in the post-war years in America, when money began to be invested in the development of sportsmen and women, it was the Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as the AAU, which emerged as the national governing body for many sports disciplines, including track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball and many others.

According to the book, “History of the United States Wrestling Federation / USA Wrestling” by Werner Holzer, the AAU had become a very powerful entity, frustrating coaches and athletes alike due to perceived lack of funding and support. This frustration was particular true in the “smaller” disciplines of wrestling and gymnastics where AAU mindshare appeared much greater in track and field.

Top of the list of complaints was the perceived AAU disregard for the views and expertise of the coaches to identify and select athletes for major competitions. Holzer explained that “the 1964 Olympic Games selection process personified the problem of the AAU being the ruling body for the sports of gymnastics. The AAU gymnastics chairman, George Gulack, selected the internationally inexperienced Vannie Edwards as the women’s 1964 Olympic Team coach. He appointed his wife, Fay Gulack, who was incapable and unknowledgeable about gymnastics, as the team manager. It was an arrangement destined for disaster!”

Ron Barak 1
Ron Barak

Ron Barak, a member of the 1964 men’s Olympic Gymnastics team, and today a practicing lawyer and novelist, first met George Gulack in 1962, when Barak was a sophomore at USC. Barak competed in that year’s National AAU Championships which served as the trials to select the U.S. men’s team that would represent the U.S. in the 1962 World Gymnastics Championships. Natural grade inflation in subjectively graded sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating favored the more established veterans in those sports. It’s just the way it was, according to Barak. This was Barak’s first appearance on the national scene, he told me, and he personally had no expectations of making the 1962 World Gymnastics Team and so he felt he was there to pay his dues and gain experience for what he was really after, a chance to make the 1964 Olympic Team.

But something strange happened over the three-day trials. For the first two days, Barak said he flew under the radar, largely unnoticed. He recalled that he was performing well and scoring well, and yet still felt more like a spectator than a competitor. However, after two days, he found himself in serious contention to make the 1962 World Games Team. He began to believe that all he had to do was perform at the same level on the last day and score at the same level, and he would make the World Games Team. Barak said he performed even better on the third day than on the first two days, but strangely, he told me, his scores plummeted, and he missed the team by a slim margin.

Barak said that Gulack came up to him after the competition was over and said “Don’t worry about it, Ron, your time will come. Just be patient.” Barak wasn’t sure what to make of Gulack’s words. Literally, they were nothing more than innocent words of encouragement. But Gulack, Barak said, presided over that three-day competition like it was his personal fiefdom and he was calling all the shots. Gulack was used to having his own way. He could occasionally be pleasant, Barak recalled, but more often he was a bully, if not an outright tyrant. Did Gulack’s words to Barak signify something more than their plain meaning? Lots of innuendo but no way to know.

USA Mens Gymnastics Team_1964
Gymnasts competing for the USA Men’s Gymnastics Team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Come 1964, Barak won the NCAA All Around Championships and finished high enough in the 1964 Olympic Trials to make the team . “Gulack continued to act as if he were making all the decisions, but the fact was that the seven U.S. gymnasts who made the U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1964 were the seven best male gymnasts in the country that year. No one made that team who didn’t earn it and no one not on that team deserved to be there.”

Barak suspected that because the male gymnasts on the whole were a veteran team, most of whom would not continue to compete much after 1964, Gulack had little to threaten them with even if he could.

According to others, Gulack appeared to exercise significant influence in the selection of the women’s gymnastics team. During the Olympic Games, several weeks after the official trials had ended in the United States and the women’s gymnastics team roster had been set, Gulack re-set the team roster in an unscheduled competition.

Members of the women’s team were rankled, and itching to push back. A rebellion was brewing and would come to a head in Tokyo in October of 1964.

Komazawa Olympic Park venues 2
Komazawa Olympic venues in 1964, from the book, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

Are the Olympics a worthy investment? Does the investment create legacies for the host country?

The answer to those questions are often “no”, unfortunately, at least in terms of the billions spent on structures like stadiums and other various sports venues.

Many of the structures built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics still exist, like the Nippon Budokan, the National Gymnasium and Annex, as well as the Komazawa Olympic Park venues. Not only that, they live and breathe. Click below on the video to see and hear what I did.

On Sunday, May 1, during the long break in Japan known as Golden Week, I took a short bicycle ride to Komazawa Olympic Park, and walk where 1964 Olympians walked. The Park is a collection of venues: Komazawa Gymnasium where Japan won 5 of 16 total gold medals just in wrestling, Komazawa Hockey Field where India beat Pakistan in a memorable finals between two field hockey blood rivals, Komazawa Stadium where soccer preliminary matches were played, and Komazawa Volleyball Courts where Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team mowed through the competition until they won gold at a different venue.

On that day, thousands of people were enjoying unseasonably warm weather under clear, blue skies. The tracks around the park were filled with runners. The gymnasium was hosting a local table tennis tournament, and the stadium was prepping for the third day of the four-day Tokyo U-14 International Youth Football Tournament.

Komazawa 3

In the plaza between the various Komazawa venues, hundreds were enjoying the weather with great food and drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find draft Seattle Pike IPA. While enjoying the cold beer on the hot day, surrounded by hundreds of people loving the day, I realized that Japan in the 1960s made great decisions in planning for the 1964 Olympics. I had a similar revelation earlier when I visited the National Gymnasium months earlier. So much of what was built for those Summer Games are a part of the everyday life of the Japanese.

Japan built a fantastic legacy for 1964. What legacy will Japan begin in 2020?

Komazawa 6

From
From “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”
  • Byron Nelson won 11 PGA golf tournaments in a row.
  • Rocky Marciano went 49-0 in his boxing career.
  • Guillermo Vilas won 46 tennis matches in a row.
  • Edwin Moses won 122 straight in 400-meter hurdles
  • Cael Sanderson won 159 straight college wrestling matches

But Osamu Watanabe won 189 consecutive wrestling matches, as well as gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Watanabe competed in wrestling tournaments in Europe, America, Asia and won every match. He was known as the “Animal” for his strength, and as the “Swiss Watch” for his technique. He dominated in his career, and in the Tokyo Olympics, coming in as the favorite having won the 1962-1963 World Champion in the men’s featherweight freestyle division .

In the end, when Osamu Watanabe (渡辺長武) took down Soviet wrestler, Nodar Khokhashvili, he had won his 186th and final match without a blemish in the loss column. In fact, during the Tokyo Games, Watanabe was not even scored upon.

From the book
From the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964”

After the Olympics, Watanabe joined a large Japanese advertising firm named Dentsu. Clearly, he had the itch. In 1970, while at Dentsu, he took part in an All-Japan wrestling tournament in which he wrestled once, and won. Make that 187 in a row.

Even more amazing, 17 years later, at the age of 47, 23 years after his triumph in Tokyo, Osamu “Animal” Watanabe came out of retirement to compete at the All Japan Wrestling Championship, with a hope to represent Japan again at the Seoul Summer Games in 1988. And yes, he won two more…before succumbing to time, losing, and ending a streak that is still unfathomable.

A career record of 189 – 1. Perfect

To watch Watanabe take down Khokhashvili, start watching this video from the 35 second mark.

 From the film,

From the film, “Walk, Don’t Run”, filmed on location during the Tokyo Olympics

Today, the taxi driver in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter, is polite, knowledgeable, chatty and silent as you wish, and above all else, safe. As visitors realize their first time in Tokyo, you pay for this.

But in 1964, apparently, taxi drivers had a public relations issue. Sports Illustrated described taxis in Japan in their October 19, 1964 issue as “those four-wheeled hearses operated by frustrated Kamikaze pilots”.

Remember, the Tokyo Summer Games were held only 23 years after Pearl Harbor, so I wonder how much emotional baggage was packed inside that moniker. This is typical of the patronizing tone of the American journalist at the time. “(Taxi drivers) do not speak much English, and very little Japanese for that matter. All of them were hired 30 minutes ago and have no idea how to find the Imperial Palace. But they can all find the Olympic Village. In fact, they take every pale-faced passenger there, whether he wants to go or not.” (October 2, 1964).

“Everyone who goes to Tokyo must, sooner or later, find himself in a battle of nerves with the famous Tokyo cab drivers. (Bill) Lied had his experience and he isn’t likely to forget it. ‘The Japanese taxi ride isn’t to be forgotten,’ he said. ‘The Tokyo residents call the taxi drivers the Kamikaze Squad (on the wings of God) – and so they are’,” as the Wagner College Wrestling Coach explained to The Star-Ledger (November 6, 1964).

Not all was bad. Taxis were cheap, some 30 or 40 yen per trip, so at 360 yen to the dollar, that’s 8 to 11 cents a ride. And there were, of course, conscientious taxi drivers. As is cited in the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad”, some taxi drivers tried to reverse the bad PR with PR of their own, placing signs in their vehicles in English that read, “I Am Not a Kamikaze Driver.”

As for me,

Poster marketing the Ali vs Aoki boxing/wrestling exhibition in Japan
Poster of the Ali vs Aoki exhibition match in Japan

Japan’s head of the Olympic delegation, Olympian Kenkichi Oshima, proclaimed 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Games that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals. Since Japan’s haul for the 1960 Games in Rome was only 4, Oshima’s declaration was uncustomarily boastful.

As it turned out, Japan won 16 gold medals, part of it due to the entry of Judo to the summer games. But arguably the main reason was Japan’s emergence as a wrestling power, as their wrestlers won a surprising five gold medals. Much credit was given to the team’s coach, Ichiro Hatta, famous for his Spartan training methods and singular mindset on winning.

Equally interesting, at least to me, is that Hatta is the one who introduced Muhammad Ali to Japanese wrestler, Antonio Aoki in April, 1975, setting up a mixed martial arts battle in the Budokan on June 26, 1976. In the end, the battle between Ali and Aoki was a bore, and a low point in Ali’s career. But it certainly sticks in my mind as a quirky sports cultural milestone.

Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.

Cotswold Games

Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.

Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.

But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the  Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.

The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.

The Republican Olympiad: When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.

Benefit of Mr Kite and John Lennon
John Lennon in front of poster that inspired “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.

The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.

When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.

William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
fidel-castro-in-1964
Fidel Castro, southpaw, throwing a pitch in 1964

Fidel Castro has passed away. But his legacy for the love of sport continues.

Cuba has the 65th largest GDP in the world today. It has the 78th largest population in the world at 11.2 million people. And yet, in the Americas, only America and Canada have garnered more total Olympic medals than the small island nation of Cuba. Incredibly, in the period from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba finished in the top 11 medal count. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, only the United Team (the former Soviet bloc), the United States, Germany and China got more than Cuba’s 31 total medals.

Clearly, this Caribbean nation has punched way above its weight class, and not just in boxing where Cuba is most famous. In 20 Olympic Games, Cuba has won 79 gold medals, 67 silver medals and 70 bronze medals in judo, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball. By comparison, India, which has a population over a hundred times larger, and the fifth largest GDP in the world, has competed in four more Olympics than Cuba, and yet has totaled only 28 medals.

And according to articles after President Castro passed away on November 25, 2016, Castro had a hand in turning Cuba into a sports power – and it doesn’t appear to be via state-sponsored doping systems. According to this article, sports became a social phenomenon due to state-sponsored institutions.

After Castro entered Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation’s sports practice, resulting in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.

In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly on the island. The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.

fidel-castro-at-basketball-clinic

But Cuba’s biggest sports cheerleader was, according to the New York Times, was el presidente himself.

“I think Fidel Castro legitimately liked sports,” said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “One got the sense with East Germany, for example, that it really was a question of propaganda and that government officials didn’t have that obsession with sport itself that Fidel Castro did.” Whatever hardships they endured, Cubans could take pride in their sports stars.

But of course, during Cuba’s hey day in the 1970s and 1980s, in the heat of the cold war, Castro could not help but use Cuba’s great sporting achievements as a tool in the battle for geo-political mindshare. Of course, as the Times points out, propaganda is often just propaganda, a smokescreen behind which you hide the uglier shades of truth.

Yet it was primarily baseball, along with boxing and other Olympic sports, that came to symbolize both the strength and vulnerability of Cuban socialism. Successes in those sports allowed Mr. Castro to taunt and defy the United States on the diamond and in the ring and to infuse Cuban citizens with a sense of national pride. At the same time, international isolation and difficult financial realities led to the rampant defection of top baseball stars, the decrepit condition of stadiums and a shortage of equipment.

fidel-castro-and-teofilo-stevenson-in-1984
Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984

So for every great sporting star who remained in Cuba, like three-time Olympic heavyweight champion,Teófilo Stevenson, or Javier Sotomayor, still the world record holder in the high jump, there have been many who defected, often to their neighbor to the north, the United States.

What does the future bring? Will the recent thawing of relations initiated by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama continue to allow greater travel and expanded opportunities for cross-border business and cultural exchange? Or will President-elect Donald Trump reverse the thaw? Will that have any impact on sports in Cuba?