Massive investments in amateur sport have allowed other countries to win more Pan Am medals at Cuba’s expense, tilting the balance of power toward nations with more money.
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The instant the gun sounded to start the women’s 800-metre final at the Pan Am Games last Wednesday, Cuba’s Rose Mary Almanza accelerated and kept going.
And why not? Her best time this season put her two seconds ahead of the next-fastest runner in the field, so she had reason to trust her speed. The rest of the field could burn themselves out keeping up or hang back hoping she would fade.
They waited. Almanza faded.
American Alysia Montano passed her first, then eventual gold medallist Melissa Bishop of Canada.
And, if you were looking for a moment that symbolizes the shift of Olympic sport dominance in the Pan Am region, it happened here, as Brazil’s Flavia De Lima passed Almanza for the bronze.
Until this year, Cuba routinely occupied a spot just below the U.S. on the Pan Am Games medal table, with a large gap to the next-most successful teams. Over the past four Pan Am cycles, Cuba has averaged 165.25 medals per games, 75.25 of them gold. Both totals trail only the U.S.
This time around, Cuba won 36 gold among 97 medals, fourth in both categories, behind the U.S., Canada and Brazil. Toronto 2015 was the first time since 1967 that Cuba failed to win more than 100 medals.
Cuba continues to punch above its weight — with 11.27 million residents, it is by far the least populous of the top five medal-winning nations.
But massive investments in amateur sport have allowed other countries to win more Pan Am medals at Cuba’s expense, tilting the balance of power toward nations with more money.
“I would suspect that many of the same factors that make the economic model of the Olympics effective would play a similar role in the Pan American games,” said Dan Johnson, an economist from Colorado College who studies the link between Olympic performance and factors such as GDP. “Cuba always gets a tip for political structure reasons — single-party regimes beat their democratic peers quite soundly, all else held equal.”
Johnson’s research shows countries hosting an Olympic Games usually experience a boost in medal output, and this year’s Pan Am Games have seen that phenomenon at work for two teams.
Brazil has overhauled its amateur sports program ahead of next summer’s Olympics in Rio, and its athletes won 141 medalsas they work toward 2016.
And the Canadian Olympic Committee treated these Games as it would an Olympics, for the first time setting performance goals and ensuring Canada’s top athletes competed in as many sports as possible.
So while Jamaican sprint stars such as Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell raced elsewhere this month, Canada made sure top talents such as Andre DeGrasse and long jump gold medalist Christabel Nettey lined up here.
“The best athletes we had wanted to compete at home, and that was important,” said COC sport director Caroline Assalian.
Cuba’s delegation insists the country still sends the best athletes available, but several world-class performers developed in recent years by Cuba’s socialist sports system are absent. Hurdler Dayron Robles no longer competes for the Cuban federation, and former teammate Orlando Ortega defected to Spain. Boxer Marcos Forestal left the country last year to box professionally.
Meanwhile, economics contribute to change at the top of the Pan Am medal table.
Assalian says the Canadian Olympic Committee’s annual budget, just under $6 million four years ago, doubled in preparation for these Games while the federal government added a further $4.7 million to fund athlete development.
According to an Associated Press story published in May, Brazil has spent more than $1 billion since 2009, strengthening everything from infrastructure to high performance training ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
In contrast, Cuba’s economy sputters despite measures such as relaxing rules against owning real estate enacted in recent years to spur commerce. The country relies heavily on oil subsidies from Venezuela, and its economic output lags behind that of other nations atop the Pan Am medal standing.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Cuba’s GDP in 2014 was $128.5 billion (U.S.), compared with $1.74 trillion for Canada and $3.07 trillion for Brazil.
That Cuba can’t simply generate better results by pouring more money into its sports system remains a point of both resignation and pride.
“The U.S., Canada, and Brazil, those are three of the biggest economies in the region,” says Cuban delegation spokesperson Roberto Ramirez. “The Cuban sports system is unique. We’ll survive with a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of know-how.”
Whether Canada will more than double Cuba’s medal output in Rio still isn’t clear.
Canada won nine medals in waterskiing in and wakeboarding, non-Olympic sports in which Cuba didn’t enter competitors.
And Cuba hopes to ride a wave of young track and field talent — Cuba earned nine medals, five gold, in athletics— while doubling down on its strengths. In the final two days of Pan Am boxing Cuba won 10 gold and silver medals, and 17-year-old light-flyweight Joahnys Argilagos says that dominance won’t change.
“We’re still the best in the world,” said, Agrilagos, who won silver. “We’re proving it in every fight, every event, every competition everywhere.”