With Steady Flow of Defections, Cuba Is Exporting Olympic Medal Winners

Lead Photo: Danell Leyva, Getty Images
Danell Leyva, Getty Images
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As usual, Cuba’s Olympic delegation fared pretty well at this year’s Rio Games. With five gold medals and 11 overall, the island beat out its Spanish-speaking peers in the region and came second only to Brazil in all of Latin America. But with 15 Cuban-born athletes competing for other countries, Cuba’s sports dominance actually extends well beyond their official medal count.

In fact, Cuban-born athletes brought home a total of seven medals at Rio, competing for adopted countries ranging from Turkey and Azerbaijan to Spain, Italy, and the United States. And in most of these cases, the athletes were not only born in Cuba, but began their athletic careers in Cuba’s world-class training system.

Last week runner Orlando Ortega took home silver in the 110-meter hurdles representing Spain, when just a year ago he was still competing for Cuba in international events. In the midst of his celebration, the newly minted Spanish citizen was famously offered a Cuban flag, which he rejected in favor of Spain’s Rojigualda. The incident inspired backlash from both within and outside of Cuba, with one Spanish leftist referring to him disparagingly as a “gusano,” and Cuban state media labeling him with the awkward demonym “ex-Cuban.”

Of course, thanks in part to punitive migration policies, Cuba is no stranger to athletic defections – even with the island warming up to professional sports over the last few years. Back in 2015, the nation suffered a particularly brutal blow to national morale when their soccer selection shed four vital players over the course of the 23rd Gold Cup, then lost six more during the Olympic Qualifying Championships three months later.

The reasons for defection are undoubtedly complex and highly personal, but as Cuban-born Azerbaijani wrestler Lorenzo Sotomayor told the international press ahead of his silver medal-winning run, “[If I were in Cuba] I’d be in the streets struggling to make a living and to put food on the table for my two young children.”

In many cases, Cuban defectors simply end up competing for the first country to offer them a slot, which was also the case for runner Yasmani Copello. At this year’s Games, Copello took home a bronze medal for Turkey in the 400m hurdles after leaving Cuba only four years ago. Commenting on his new nationality, Copello told AFP, “I never thought I would end up being Turkish. They saw my potential, they told me they were interested, that their country needed someone strong like me.”

Yasmani Copello
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As for US gymnast Danell Leyva, his debt to Cuban athletics is a little less clear-cut. The Matanzas-born silver medalist came to the Miami as an infant and has competed for the United States over the entirety of his career. Still, given that both his mother and stepfather – who is also Leyva’s coach – were members of Cuba’s national gymnastics team, Leyva is in many ways heir to Cuba’s venerable gymnastics tradition.

This year, with Cuba’s total medal count reaching a 44-year low after two decades of steady backsliding, the amount of Cuban-born medal-winners competing for other countries was undoubtedly felt more acutely than ever. Cuba has a long Olympic history dating back to the 1900 Games, and trails only the United States in overall gold medals in the Americas despite sitting out seven Games. But with more economic opportunity for the country’s world-class athletes outside of the island, Cuba seems to be suffering from a crippling drain of athletic talent.

In the meantime, there are hopes that the island will begin the important process of reconciliation with their overseas athletes in the midst of the country’s economic and social overhaul. Whatever the ultimate outcome, Cubans can be proud of the indelible mark their small nation leaves upon the world year after year, regardless of the flag their compatriots choose to carry.

H/T BBC Mundo.