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FROM THIS EPISODE

Fidel the Sportsman

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

News of Fidel Castro's failing health, perhaps imminent death, is playing differently in different circles. Leftist leaders of Latin America lament the potential loss of their spiritual leader. Exiled Cubans in Miami celebrate the demise of the man they view as a monster despot. But for the Cuban athlete, there's bound to be mixed feelings. On one hand, the many elite baseball players on the island---and there are an estimated 200 or so ball players who could this minute suit up and make the rosters of our Major Leagues--they have long thirsted for the day when they can fulfill their dreams of playing for the likes of the New York Yankees without risking their lives by escaping Havana in small boats in the middle of the night. Baseball's history in Cuba is virtually as storied and long-standing as it is here. But ever since January, 1959, when two freedom-fighters named Fidel and Che rode out of the island's central mountains and crushed overnight the Batista regime which had fostered a disconnect of the filthy rich lording over the abysmal poor, baseball players fell under the new Castro ideal of socialism and freely mixing in with the American leagues came to an abrupt end. You will find Cuban ball players who adore Fidel and defend the nobility of their leader having equalized all Cuban souls into one collective unit. I've interviewed many Cuban athletes over the years who truly admire Fidel for doing away with the Batista days of injustice.

But that's politics and ideology. Those same pro-Fidel ball players can't help but also admit that their ultimate fantasy is to play their sport at the ultimate level, either in the U.S. Major Leagues, or in Cuba as part of the Major Leagues.

Whether Fidel's brother Ra--l takes command for the long haul, or it falls to someone else within the Castro regime, there is widespread speculation that the current socialist system will change radically. And I venture to guess that that will not bode well for Cuban athletes outside the baseball diamonds. The achievements of Cuban track and field, volleyball, and boxing champions have been astounding, considering both the small population of the island as well as their lack of resources. Haven't you often wondered each summer Olympics just how all those Cuban athletes could win so many medals when they live and train under such minimal conditions? I've worked out at the Cuban National Training facility. In the basement there is one stationary bicycle. It is rusted to the point of non-function. The resistance on the right side is too hard. You have to press with all your might to get it to budge. But on the left side there is no resistance at all so your left leg flies around with no pressure. One bike for all the elite athletes in Havana and this is the bike they have. But, just as Fidel has instituted superior levels of medicine and education, his love of sport has developed world-class coaches, a great ratio of coaches to athletes for individual attention, and a strong ethic of hard work and sharp focus on perfect form and repeated practice drills.

If and when Fidel passes, if and when Cuba turns into a version of the Bahamas, all those magnificently trained and motivated Cuban athletes will lose the nation-wide support and adulation they have enjoyed since 1959. Yes, track athletes will sign multi-million-dollar sneaker contracts which they deserve. And boxers will fight for millions in marquis events and finally get a chance to earn what they deserve.

But I guarantee you there will one day be a perspective that Fidel elevated sports onto a pedestal of worship. Cuban athletes will one day miss their special place in the pantheon of sports as heroes representing a poor but very proud country, as athletes who played for country, not for money.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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