Baseball may be our national pastime, but it is Cuba's national passion. Spontaneous games break out like fires on the hot streets of Havana, played with humble boards for bats but lofty dreams of someday making it to the Cuban big leagues.
Here, the passion is palpable. The game may look like a rock concert or a good New Year's Eve party, but it's baseball, all right, served up Cuban-style with habanero pepper sauce.
And it's not just baseball. Cubans are wild about boxing and volleyball, and show a fervor for all manner of sports.
Fidel Castro made sports and fitness a top priority. Health was important, of course, but sports also allowed him to give the superpowers a good poke in the eye once in a while.
Alberto Juantorena, a Cuban sports legend with two Olympic gold medals, explains, "Fidel is the first promoter of the sports in our country. Fidel always asked the athletes to be modest, to be human, and to understand that we are competing for our flag. We are competing for our country."
Juantorena became a Cuban sports legend in 1976 when he achieved what many thought to be impossible, winning Olympic gold medals in grueling back-to-back 400-meter and 800-meter races in Montreal. He travels the country now, fanning the flames of Cuba's sports passion in order to continue Cuba's extraordinary success in international competition.
"We were fifth in Barcelona, eighth in Atlanta and we are looking forward to Sydney in 2000," he brags, adding, "we are training hard."
It's phenomenal for a country this size. That's like New Jersey finishing fifth in the Olympic medal count, except New Jersey's facilities are better.
Juantorena describes it best: "Ten million people, developing country, with economic embargo by your country ...in very hard conditions. We are fighting, and struggle every day to promote the sports with many financial problems."
Some call it a miracle. But it seems a special ability of the Cuban people to make something out of almost nothing, much as their magician mechanics miraculously keep the nation's fleet of ancient cars rolling.
Alberto Juantorena is something of a magician too, somehow keeping the Cuban sports machine running on empty.
The Cuban national wrestling team engages in decidedly low tech, inexpensive workouts. They don't need fancy fitness machines. They have each other. At the swimming complex athletes are told, basically, that Cuba is poor right now and get over it. They run on ratty tracks, but Cuba has a system for turning dirt track racers into world class athlees.
At tryouts, coaches identify promising athletes and offer them enrollments in special sports schools. Once a child shows promise, Juantorena says, "from five years old to 16 they're living in the school."
The best move on to schools like the Center for Elite Sports. "They compete, they live there, they study there, you know? And then we supply and we promote the sport," Juantorena explains.
To help pay for this system in lean times, Cuba has actually begun renting its coaches to other countries. The program, says Juantorena, is self-financing: "We have more than 35 countries. We have more than 600 coaches. They have donated 80 percent of the salary to our sports, and the athletes donate their prize money."
The system has lost a handful of its best athletes in highly-publicized defections. Most, like Juantorena himself, spurned the money. He says, "In my heart I feel sorry for people who defect. And to abandon this country who created them and supported them to be a good star in the sport, you know?"
Sure, if they go to the U.S. they might live in fancy houses and drive fancy cars. But, says Juantorena, "they miss something. They miss this town. They miss the love of the people. They miss our beaches. They miss the environment. They miss their relationships. There's more than all the money in the world, you know?"
These are difficult times, but the Cubans are fighters.
They're the best amateur boxers in the world, in fact. On a steamy Friday night in downtown Havana, fans packed an arena. There, Alcides Sagarro, Cuba's renowned boxing coach, says Cubans make the best boxers because of their strength and tenacity -- and, oddly enough, because they are happy people who love to dance. He says when he sees a great dancer, he signs him up for boxing school.
The Cubans are fighters, like Ana Fidelia Quirot, a national symbol of battling adversity. She was the best middle distance runner in the world when she was badly burned, lost her unborn baby girl, fought for her own life, and underwent 21 operations.
Ana not only lived, she went on to win a silver medal in Atlanta and two world championships. She is expecting a baby.
"I always dedicated my victories to the Cuban people and to Fidel," she says. "He declared 'sports are the right of the people.' I run first for Cuba, then for myself."
Ana Fidelia Quirot, says Juantorena, is "an example for all of them. As long as you have the courage, if you have the courage like Ana, you can do everything in life. Their mentality, the Cubans, you never surrender, you never say no, you always can do something for the victory. This is inside our mentality. As a population, as a people, our history--always fighting, in battles (against Spanish colonialism). We are a small amount of people, fighting the big army, and we defeat them."
Juantorena says he continues to set the bar higher and higher for Cuban sportsdespite hardships, because the Cubans are fighters. Because they're resourceful and because of their passion for the games.
©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed