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Great moments in the history of Cuban sports

Great moments in the history of Cuban sports

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

The history of Cuban sports goes back to the Spanish colonial period with the practice of chess. This was played mainly in the homes where tournaments were organized. In the midst of such popularity, on October 9, 1855, the distinguished Cuban patriot Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, known as Father of the Country, published in El Redactor newspaper, in Santiago de Cuba, the “Laws of the Game of Chess.” Three decades later, in 1885, the Chess Club of Havana was created on O’Reilly Street.

Long identified as our national pastime, baseball was brought to Cuba in 1866 by a group of young Cubans who were studying at universities in the United States. The Cuban Professional Baseball League was created in 1878 and went on until 1961, when the revolutionary government replaced it with an amateur championship called the National Baseball Series, which has held 56 editions and has promoted many glories in that sport. Four teams, or clubs as they were called then, excelled in the professional league: the Habana, the Almendares, the Marianao and the Cienfuegos.

For more than a century, a notable group of Cuban baseball players played in the Major Leagues, and other baseball leagues organized in the United States and other countries of the continent. Among these pioneers, we find Armando Marsáns (who in 1911 made his Major League debut with the Cincinnati Reds), Martín Dihigo, José Rodríguez, Cristóbal Torriente and Miguel Ángel González. During the course of the XX century and what goes of the XXI, Cuba has had other stars at that level of the likes of Adolfo Luque, Orestes Miñoso, Conrado Marrero, and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, just to name a few. At present, several figures formed by the Cuban school of baseball play in the Major Leagues, with Yoenis Céspedes, Kendrys Morales, Yasmani Tomás and Aroldis Chapman excelling in their respective teams.

Before the revolutionary triumph of 1959, sports in Cuba had isolated talents who, nevertheless, gave the nation and honorable place at world-wide level. Thus, one of the most outstanding was José Raúl Capablanca, world chess champion from 1921 to 1927, considered by the experts as one of the three most brilliant chess players of all time. Another one that stood out was the fencer Ramon Fonst, winner of two Olympic golds in epée in Paris in 1900, and gold and silver in epée and foil in Saint Louis, 1904. In addition, he has the honor of being the first Latin American in obtaining an Olympic medal. Also fencer Manuel Dionisio Diaz won gold in épée and team foil at the Saint Louis Games, while the spectacular boxer Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, known as Kid Chocolate, was world champion in 1931 and 1932.

The revolutionary government managed to massify the practice of sport with the creation of training schools as well as the construction of a good number of facilities for the practice of the different disciplines, which turned Cuba in a few decades into one of the main powers of world sport.

Among the great exponents of this phenomenon it is essential to mention the brilliant women’s volleyball team, known as “Las Morenas del Caribe,” winner of gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games (Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000); in four, also consecutive, World Volleyball Cups (1989, 1991, 1995 and 1999; and in two Grand Prix (1993 and 2000). Furthermore, since Munich 1972, the Cuban Boxing School, known for its refined technique, usually occupies the top of the podium both in Olympic games and in world championships. In athletics and other combat sports, such as judo and wrestling in its two styles, as well as weightlifting, gymnastics, rowing, shooting, and cycling, Cuba has also had a remarkable performance.

Neither should we forget an Olympic bronze medal won by Cuba’s men’s basketball team in Munich 1972, and the medals win by the men’s volleyball team. Also, for more than three decades, Cuba’s amateur baseball team was brilliant in world championships and continental events. The roster included outstanding figures of the stature of Antonio Antonio Huelga, Omar Linares, Antonio Muñoz, Agustín Marquetti, Lázaro Valle, Pedro Luis Lazo , Antonio Pacheco, Braudilio Vinent, Victor Mesa and Orestes Kindelán.

Several figures stand out for their superb performances:  Boxers Teófilo Stevenson and Felix Savón, who were both three times Olympic champions and several times world champions; Alberto Juantorena, double Olympic champion in Montreal 1976 in 400 and 800 meters, becoming the first athlete to do such a double at an officially recognized Olympic, something that no one has repeated to date; Javier Sotomayor, world record holder in high jump both in outdoor and indoor championships; javelin throwers Maria Caridad Colón and Osleidys Menéndez, both Olympic champions. Maria Caridad was the first Latin American woman to obtain a medal in the Olympics; Judoka Idalys Ortiz, Olympic medalist; weightlifter Daniel Núñez; shooter Neurys Pupo; and multi-champion wrestler Mijaín López.

Among the sporting events organized in Cuba after 1959, in my opinion there are two that have had a special impact on our sport and our pride as hosts: the World Boxing Championship held in Havana in 1974 and the Pan American Games, also held in Havana in 1991. The latter were organized in the midst of an extremely difficult economic situation. Cuba was first in these Games, staging one of the most admirable moments of our sport.

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