Lessons From Cuba: How We Can Redefine Nationalism Through Sports

The Indian cricket players stand for the national anthem ahead of a match.
The Indian cricket players stand for the national anthem ahead of a match.(Photo: BCCI)

Lessons From Cuba: How We Can Redefine Nationalism Through Sports

I was born in October 1987 in Gwalior, India. It was fascinating to grow up in India in the early 1990s. Dr Manmohan Singh, a great economist and former prime minister of India, had just made some landmark economic policy changes in the country.

In 1991, India had liberalised its economy and entered the world of free global trade. This move made us a part of the globalisation movement. The world became smaller, immigration was easier, economy grew and the world around also became friendlier.

In 1991, the then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh shaking hands with former Prime Minister of India, PV Narasimha Rao.
In 1991, the then Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh shaking hands with former Prime Minister of India, PV Narasimha Rao.
(Photo Courtesy: Google Images)

Being a millennial I am a recipient of this globalised, friendly world. As I was a professional athlete, I was exposed to the globalisation movement, both physically and mentally.

My sport took me to 42 countries. The more I travelled, listened, read and met people all across the world, I realised we all are fundamentally the same, yet different. We all have more or less the same problems, dreams and ambitions, yet we are different in culture, race, history and religion. The similarity instantly connected me to the people I met, the differences made life more interesting.

Celebrating Easter with four generations of Germans on a solo road trip in Europe. 
Celebrating Easter with four generations of Germans on a solo road trip in Europe. 
(Photo Courtesy: Aditi Mutatkar)

To really make the most of this similar yet different world, I realised I had to embrace a philosophy that is all encompassing, yet which accommodates the differences. So, I chose ‘Humanism’ as a philosophy to live by.

Humanism is defined as, “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasise common needs and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.” Living by this principle of humanism I lived in peace with the world I inhabited.

But then I turned 26 in October of 2014 and the world around me seemed to have changed. The world began to realise that globalisation did not really have the intended effect.

Free trade and liberal economies had still not made any material differences in the lives of the poor. If anything, globalisation had increased the divide between the rich and the poor. Citizens of various countries reacted by voting to change their leaderships, whose ideology and principles were different from the leaders that ruled before them.

These leaders believed that the way ahead had to be paved by putting your nation first and above everyone else. The scholars called this phenomenon the rise of nationalism.

Nationalism is defined as ‘exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to other nations or supranational groups.’

International examples of nationalism included travel bans, stricter immigration laws, building walls, closing borders, Brexit, America’s exit from Paris climate change agreement, and so many other significant instances of unrest all over the world. In India too, there were undercurrents of flavours of nationalism evident in various ways – JNU protest and aftermath, beef ban, religious tensions, Make in India campaign, etc.

There was a lot of commentary around all these significant events from experts all over the world that it compelled me to look at nationalism as one of the ways to overcome inequality and frustration that globalisation had caused.
It would be the height of folly to reject the “we” of nationality in favour of some global alternative or some fluctuating community in cyberspace. The task is not to surrender to globalisation but to manage it, to soften its sharp edges, so that our attachments and loyalties can still guide us in exercising the thing that defines us, which is the sovereignty of the people, in a place of their own.
Roger Scruton, British writer and philosopher in the Wall Street Journal

Having said this, it became increasingly difficult to rationalise that to practice nationalism one had to change their eating practices, preach about one’s religious supremacy, or deny climate change. Being a former athlete I know that sustained effort towards improving things is more tangible than mere symbolism.

As a millennial and an optimist, I wanted to find a better example of nationalism that perhaps gave an equal access to every citizen of India irrespective of their class, caste, religion, eating practices, age and gender while not affecting the world I live in negatively. After three years of constant searching, I found a way to practice nationalism in a rational way in the unlikeliest of places... Cuba.

The Comprehensive Sports policy of India (Draft) which was written in 2007 (India still recognises the 2001 National Sports policy) hails Cuba as an example of sporting success that India should follow. It states:

“Cuba, whose population of about 11.5 million is comparable to that of Delhi, boasts approximately 2 million athletes, of whom 23,000 are in the high-performance category in 38 different sports disciplines at the national and international level.

“Currently, there are over 1,20,000 retired sportspersons, apart from another 48,000 professionals, engaged in delivering sport and physical education at home, community, school and college, and workplace in Cuba. Till date Cuba has won 220 Olympic medals to India’s 28. It is a nation which is 100 times less populated than India, with a medal tally ten times as much as India.”

How did a small island country like Cuba achieve this feat? The answer to that question is Fidel Castro’s unique brand of nationalism.

A historic photo of the relatively young Fidel Castro in 1959, just after the fall of Batista regime, after which Castro became the prime minister. 
A historic photo of the relatively young Fidel Castro in 1959, just after the fall of Batista regime, after which Castro became the prime minister. 
(Photo: AP)

When Castro became Cuba’s prime minister in 1959, he quickly realised Cuba’s economic limitations. As the leader of the nation he had to find unconventional forms of diplomacy to keep a strong position within Cuba and abroad.

One among them was sports and imbibing a culture of physical activities. The choice of sports as a method of diplomacy conveniently fit Cuba’s and Castro’s interpretation of nationalism.

The book Sports in Cuba, written by Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, which was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1994, is a detailed and comprehensive account of Cuba’s rise to being an Olympic superstar. According to the book, shortly after the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government did a number of things to push their nationalist sports agenda.

The Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) was developed as the only primary organisation to run all sports programs. Sports schools and sports universities were set up, various sports programs were initiated to involve people of all ages and gender, a sports equipment industry was established, sports medicine schools were built, special education programs for physical education teachers were started, military, workers and youth games were organised once every year, magazines strictly emphasising the role of the government and voluntary organisations were published to establish transparency and spread government’s propaganda.

The book also gives us the statistics and some impressive numbers of Cuba’s resolve to popularise sport. By the end of 1990, there were 11,122 fully equipped sports facilities out of which 9,091 were open air, 1,765 were closed and 266 were swimming pools.

There are currently 15 Schools for Sports Instruction (EIDEs), 14 Schools for Superior Athletic Refinement (ESPAs), 162 sports academies and two Centers for High Performance (CEARs) in Havana. By the 1960s, 70 percent of the physical teachers had left Cuba. In response a short six-month course to train instructors was started, which was later replaced by special schools for physical education teachers.

By 1990, the number had grown from 4,374 in 1975 to 37,000. They also added 23,000 professors at intermediate level, 11,700 Bachelors of physical education, 50 doctoral candidates, 60 researchers and 80 sports medicine specialists.

Any worker involved in development of physical culture in Cuba was ensured higher wages than the national average. As a result of all of these efforts by the government, the 1987 INDER report stated that a total of 10,532,700 citizens including adults, women, and children had participated in sports or physical activity of some kind that year.

The most heartening thing about the Cuban Sports revolution was the various activities undertaken by Cuba’s mass voluntary organisations to build infrastructure in the early years. There were shortages of skilled labour and material. This was solved by mobilising volunteers.

The Latin American stadium in Havana was built by almost half a million Communities for Defense of the Revolution (CDR) members who worked over a period of 250 days to complete the project. Similarly, 408 playgrounds were built in four days by volunteer and construction workers.

While Cubans stood in line to get their everyday bread and water, athletes enjoyed the best free food and facilities. It was understood that the athletes needed the right amount of nutrition and Cubans were ready to sacrifice their conveniences for the sake of their sport stars.

Similarly, the athletes would give majority of the prize money back to the government. Every media appearance had to be paid by the media and the money was sent to the government. The star athletes also played for various private clubs and Cuban coaches were hired by other nations. Majority of the money for their services was sent back to the government by both athletes and coaches.

The Cuban government invested in their athletes right from the beginning of their careers and the athletes in return invested back in Cuban sports. Today, Cubans have succeeded in forming a sports system that is self-sustaining and does not require any additional funds from the government.

India may not necessarily learn from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, but there are definitely lessons to be learnt from Castro’s brand of sports nationalism.

Sports can become a very powerful force that can bring citizens of a country together. After all, India enjoys a distinction of being one of the youngest population in the world with 65 percent of the population under the age of 35. Do we really want to waste all that young energy practicing nationalism that is based on eating practices and fighting over religion?

We need to start building sports policies while ensuring they are feasible. For instance, we could start with updating our national sports policy and making it more relevant.

For us to become a sports nation, we all have to come together as government, citizens, coaches, parents, teachers, and athletes and focus on making sports accessible to every child, irrespective of the schools they go to (public/private), the geography they live in, the religion they belong to, their gender or economic status. It is like Fidel Castro once said, “One cannot conceive a young revolutionary who is not a sportsman.”

(Aditi Mutatkar holds the distinction of being a national champion in all age categories- under 13, under 16, under 19 and women singles. She has represented the Indian Badminton team for over 15 years and achieved her career best world ranking of 27 in 2008.)

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