In the Realm of Sport, There Was More to Fidel Castro than Rigid Communism

In his early years as a leader, Castro’s Jesuit school education heavily influenced his views on physical education and its value for nation-building.

Fidel Castro playing baseball in a still from a video titled 'Castro on the Ball'. Credit: Youtube Screenshot

Fidel Castro playing baseball in a still from a video titled ‘Castro on the Ball’. Credit: Youtube Screenshot

The setting is almost ghostly. Far removed from the infirmity which was to dog Fidel Castro in the final years of his life, the Cuban leader is a picture of swagger and physical maturity. The clip titled Castro on the Ball from 1959 shows a bespectacled man who is lanky, agile and knows a thing or two about baseball. He throws a fast pitch, swings the bat with a domineering air. All of it is meant to convey the firm control which Castro had established over Cuban politics and society only a few months ago. Fidelismo had begun.

In the years which followed the revolution, Castro strongly advocated making sports accessible for all. As a consequence, the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation came into being in 1961. Its underlying foundations were an echo of Castro’s view that sports should be “the right of the people” and not just the affluent sections of society. This was accompanied by a sustained argument for amateurism which culminated in the outlawing of professionalism in Cuban sport.

The supreme leader’s full-time involvement in politics and nation-building did not separate him from his love for sport. Indeed, it was interesting that the thawing of US-Cuba diplomatic relations in 2014 was followed by a baseball match in Havana this March which brought US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro together. Tampa Bay Rays, a Florida-based team, competed against the Cuban national side in a much-publicised encounter.

Fidel could not be present at the occasion owing to health concerns but his affiliation with baseball and sport in general is worth discussing. It’s an aspect of his personality which demands more attention than it has been historically given. As we will see here, at least in the realm of sport, there was more to Castro than mere rigid communism.

In 2014, Castro’s former aide Juan Reinaldo Sanchez wrote a book full of explosive tales which suggested that the Cuban leader had led a life of extravagance and avarice. The title itself left no one in doubt about the writer’s intention – The Double Life of Fidel Castro. Although the author’s claims were disputed at length by many thereafter, Sanchez had declared that the leader’s house possessed a rooftop bowling alley and a basketball court.

This did not seem far-fetched like some of the more outlandish allegations, for it was only a confirmation of Castro’s well-known affection for sports. In fact, the year Sanchez’s book came out, the Cuban leader wrote a letter to Argentine legend Diego Maradona praising him for his analysis during the FIFA World Cup. An excerpt from Castro’s message said, “Today I am a politician, but as child, adolescent, and youth I was an athlete and dedicated most of my free time to this noble practice.”

The latter sentence reminds one of Castro’s schooldays when he excelled at basketball, baseball and football, among other sports. Such was his enthusiasm for sports that when Cuba hosted the Pan-American Games in 1991, he could be seen almost everywhere providing encouragement to his country’s athletes.

Sport and nation-building

Anthropologist Thomas Carter has noted that Castro and his peers identified sport for the promotion of revolutionary and socialist values. Indeed, this was reflected in the 1976 Cuban constitution. Sports had come to be seen as a means through which the revolution could be legitimised.

Although sports have historically been considered a bastion of conservatism which fuels nauseating competitiveness, Castro was not the only socialist or communist revolutionary to embrace it. As Professor Alan Bairner has discussed, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin demonstrated a remarkable awareness of the gifts sport can bear. The latter, in fact, sought the establishment of a High School for Sport and Physical Culture after the 1917 October Revolution, convinced that large-scale public involvement in sport would lead to the advent of a new “communist man.”

Castro’s close friend Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara– despite his battle with asthma – also demonstrated his love for sports through his passion for swimming, golf and football. But what shaped the Cuban revolutionary’s deep-rooted enthusiasm for sport?
Some answers can be found in his discussion of liberation theology and Marxism with Brazilian Catholic priest Frei Betto in a book which was released a decade ago. As a teenager, Castro sought a transfer to a Jesuit school called Belén College in Havana. The institution was known to enroll students from the affluent classes of Cuban society. But Castro was drawn to the school for the austere values it promoted. Despite the obvious Catholicism that lay at the core of the institution, he maintained his appreciation of the Spanish Jesuits and their system of education. It is ironic that Jesuits were forced to leave the country following the revolution.

But Castro remained respectful of the Catholic Church even after he became the leader who we all came to know. Indeed, in the 1970s, the combined action by priests and left-leaning activists against the dictatorships in some Latin American nation-states caught his attention.

But more to the point here is the fact that it was in the Jesuit tradition where his love for competitive sports was fostered. Consequently, as Bairner has argued, Castro at times demonstrated the conservatism which is commonly associated with 19th century English public school teachers who promoted ‘muscular Christianity’. This doctrine sought to build virile young men with impeccable moral rectitude through participation in sport, for service to the nation. In his letter to Maradona, Castro emphasised the merits of football, particularly for boys.

In the aforementioned book, he also identified “rigour, endurance, determination and self-discipline” as some of the lessons which exercise and participation in sport can provide. The moral component of the argument is starkly present here. Despite expelling Jesuits from the country, the former Cuban head of state held on to the values inculcated in him during his school days till at least 2006 when the book came out.

Cuba’s success at the Olympics, particularly its domination of amateur boxing for decades, is a remarkable legacy of Castro’s sports policy. His thriving anti-Americanism often sought to place Cuba’s amateur athletes in opposition to those who were developed in the highly corporatised and professional setup in the US. But the low financial rewards for Cuban athletes pushed them in a corner, specifically baseball players. Many of them went on to find opportunities in professional leagues in the US, which turned out to be far more lucrative.

However, those who moved away were seen as treacherous and not allowed to return to the country. Only recently has Cuba allowed its players to play for foreign teams but the US remains a no-go zone. The easing of the rules was, interestingly, championed by Antonio Castro, Fidel’s son.

A sporting compromise with conservatism

But through his anti-US agenda in sport, the Cuban revolutionary was able to disseminate political messages to the public. The commitment to politics and Catholic values made for an intriguing marriage in the world of sport. As Castro pushed the country towards its own, peculiar interpretation of socialism, he also chose to promote a view of sport which brought together seemingly disparate values. No leader rooted in rigidity would be able to accomplish such a task.

Fidel, as his name signifies, remained faithful to the body of thought and action he had developed over years. The conservatism which had been a result of his school education remained with him, for it promoted the austere society in which he believed. But for nation-building, competitive sports had to be embraced. Castro could not just be satisfied with providing a model which fulfilled his and the public’s passion. Victory needed to be achieved, preferably at the expense of their greatest rival.

Indeed, Castro developed a model for radical politics in sport through a deep-rooted conservatism. Revolutionary and nationalist sentiment in sport could thrive only if the country’s sportspersons were to possess discipline and moral superiority. The base had been used for other political projects in the past, most notably by the British empire. Cuba’s Olympic record suggests Castro’s plan did not fail in the sporting arena.

But now that Cuba no longer has to deal with his looming shadow, will the sporting setup move towards more professionalism? One cannot answer the question with certainty in this moment. But whichever path it takes, Cuba would be served well by following Castro’s example. Conservatism and revolutionary ideas do not always make poor bedfellows.