On 23rd June, Cuban flyweight boxer Robeisy Ramirez defeated Kenyan boxer Benson Gicharu to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio, ensuring that for the first time since 2004, Cuba would have a full complement of boxers at the Games. For someone like me, who has dedicated my best years to the sweet science, this is fantastic news. For Cuba’s opponents, it is a terrifying prospect.
When it comes to Olympic boxing, the Cubans are peerless. Since 1972, they have won more boxing gold medals than any other nation – despite boycotting the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 – producing two of the greatest Olympians of all time: three-time gold medal winners Felix Savón and the late Teófilo Stevenson.
In 1976, after Stevenson had secured his second Olympic gold, American promoters offered him a multi-million dollar deal to fight Muhammad Ali. Stevenson refused, famously asking, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
Unapologetic blackness was at the centre of everything Ali did, while unapologetic socialism was at the centre of Stevenson’s refusal. Ali never saw weakness in a man rejecting material gain in favour of his principles, and the two were inseparable when he visited Cuba in 1996. Savón followed his mentor’s example, spurning a huge offer to fight Mike Tyson.
Former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan once argued that “Cuban boxers are genetically predisposed to boxing”. This statement is most definitely lazy, even racist, given that Cuba’s 40 years of dominance in the ring has been a relentless showcase of black excellence. The idea that Cubans are genetically predisposed to boxing comes from the same school of thought that compels assumptions around the “genetic superiority” of Jamaican sprinters, enables football pundits to depict black players as “beasts”, and obsesses about Serena Williams’ “power”.
Prior to the revolution of 1959, professional boxing in Cuba was synonymous with corruption, exploitation, and American criminality. Great champions often died penniless. In 1961, Fidel Castro’s government banned professional boxing. However, participation at the amateur level became fundamental to the government’s program.
From this point onwards, amateur boxing has been taken incredibly seriously. The sport is introduced to children at an early age in schools. The most talented youths are then recruited to attend specialised academies, where they continue to develop. The elite from these academies go on to attend La Finca del Wajay, in the Havana suburbs. In Wajay, the shaping of potential Olympic medallists is completed. Former champions typically stay involved in the sport, ensuring that a continuous cycle of knowledge and skills is passed down.
For all of us committed to equity and justice, it’s very easy to romanticise Cuba’s revolutionary project. The fact that Cuba has determinedly pursued a socialist path, right on America’s doorstep, under the weight of a callous economic embargo is inspiring enough. But it would be disingenuous to deny the contradictions.
The 1959 revolution made significant moves to remove barriers for black Cubans, ending institutionalised segregation, socialising education and healthcare, and creating social mobility for many. However, propagating the idea that racism was solved by these moves is false and cynical.
How could black Cubans now discuss experiencing something that ostensibly no longer existed? Racism became a taboo subject. Nonetheless, black Cuban activists continued the struggle for racial justice in an unwelcoming climate, existing within the parameters of the revolution.
This has meant acknowledging gains, but rightly demanding so much more. Today that struggle takes on new meaning, as normalisation within the United States and further economic openings exacerbate existing racial inequalities. The surging voice of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has created a pivotal moment; now is the time to unequivocally denounce anti-blackness wherever we find it. For non-black people of colour, and white people, we have to play supportive roles.
Anti-blackness operates on many levels, such as whitewashing the legacies of black sporting greats, or explaining away their sporting achievements as Barry McGuigan did. We must robustly dismiss the idea that Cuba’s Olympic boxers excel because of genetics.
When the Cubans step into the ring, when they demonstrate their unparalleled, balletic footwork, and unnervingly accurate punching, it will be tempting to cast their success as an ideological victory for socialism. There is certainly strength to that argument. Free guaranteed access for schoolchildren to sport in Cuba ensures popular participation and provides huge opportunities for development.
However, that doesn’t tell the full story. It is black Cuban children – who have always been disproportionately hurt by economic fluctuations on the island – that fill the grassroots boxing gyms and eventually grow into champions. We must acknowledge that Cuba’s dominance of Olympic boxing is the consequence of years of concentration, dedication and sacrifice, coupled with expert instruction by former competitors.
And when, not if, Cuba’s Olympic boxers return from Rio with medals proudly draped around their necks, they will undoubtedly be celebrated as national heroes by their government. But they’re not just heroes; they’re black heroes. Just like when Usain Bolt glides ahead of his competitors, or Serena Williams dumbfounds her opponent with another breathtaking drop shot, we must recognise that the Cuban Olympic boxing team is another example of black excellence.
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Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian
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