Working with Limited Resources: Lessons from Cuba


Cuba has been a reliable partner for most Southern African countries in terms of social, economic and political relations. The relationship between the tiny socialist island in the Caribbean and Southern Africa dates back to the days of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the likes of Fidel Castro and the Argentinean international revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Cuba has indeed been an all-weather friend providing much-needed support for the region’s liberation movements and young nation states at their time of dire need. However, over and above the economic and political relations, the sporting relations have also brought the people of Cuba and Southern Africa very close.

The Cuban model of sport development, because of its origins in the socialist state system has always had its critics. However, what is undeniable is that the Cuban system has brought tremendous results in the international arena despite the meagre resources at the country’s disposal. World championships in various sporting codes and the Summer Olympic Games are always opportunities for the Cuban nation to proudly showcase their sporting talent at the expense of much wealthier countries.

Cuba has amply demonstrated that it is not always a case of having colossal resources at your disposal but the ideas and organisational structure are even more important. Cuban teams always strike fear into the hearts of their opponents in athletics, baseball, basketball, boxing and volleyball. Everybody in world sport knows that playing against the Cubans is not going to be a walk in the park.

How have the Cubans risen to this position of prominence? It has taken years of planning and programme implementation centred on reasonable successor prioritisation ensuring broad-based talent identification and development.

Most of sports administrators continuously complain about the lack of sponsorship or financial support. However, with the increasingly adverse operating environment of the world economy, governments and private companies in Southern Africa are finding it difficult to support sport development programmes as there are other competing and more pressing needs on the development agenda. Issues such as education, health, energy, infrastructure development and transport are matters that have a critical bearing on the improvement of the quality of life for most of Southern Africa.

Governments and regional organisations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will rightfully focus on them to the detriment of sport, albeit temporarily.  Hopefully, as the region makes strides in the critical sectors, sport will in the long term maybe benefit even more from the economic growth and development.

However, in the meantime, before those tantalising growth rates are realised and countries have more disposable income to invest in world class sports facilities and programmes, sports administrators need to look very closely at the Cuban model. 

It is fine to have the Cuban sport experts coaching national teams but it is better to adopt and adapt the Cuban way of developing sport to suit the unique conditions of Southern Africa. 

The other key issues are the need to apply modern sport science and technology.

The development of sport in the modern world continues to be premised on firm scientific principles. 

Without systematic promotion of scientific research and development, sport in Southern Africa will continue to lag behind the rest of the world. 

If Southern Africa countries continue to work in isolation, they will not be able to reap any tangible benefits from their disparate and disjointed efforts. There is need to pool regional resources for the pursuit of excellence in sports science in Southern Africa which also entails bridging the gap between the academic world of sports science and the practical as well as operational realm of coaching. Southern African sports authorities should be able to determine through evidence-based scientific enquiry why certain coaches and athletes are excelling and succeeding. 

Science should be utilised to consolidate that success and allow others to learn from it. In the same manner, science should be able to tell the sports authorities why certain coaches, athletes and teams are performing badly and what can be done to improve performance.

The Confederation of Southern African Olympic Committees (COSANOC) and the Africa Union Sports Council (AUSC) Region 5 should have a vested interest in a regional approach to the bridging the gap between sports science and coaching. 

These two organisations should not just be talk shops but should be the leading lights in the development of sport science and coaching in the region.  T

here is definitely a need for a world class, well developed and funded system for nurturing sporting talent in the region. Southern Africa must begin to aggressively hunt as a pack of lions rather than waste time and resources with isolated efforts. The region needs harmonised coaching support networks, sports science, nutrition, physiotherapy, sport psychology, fitness training and counseling for athletes. Rather, than spend lots of funds on overseas trips and experts, it is only logical to develop capacity within the region. 

There is scope for regional public private partnerships to facilitate the sustainable development of infrastructure and programmes for the entire region. 

The process of bridging the gap between sports science and coaching in Southern Africa should start with needs assessment for the entire region with a view to achieving integration and sharing of infrastructure.

Sport is one industry which is capable of generating wealth and employment for a good number of Southern African youth. Bridging the gap between sports science and coaching will increase the number of Southern Africans involved in elite, high performance or professional sport.

 This will also contribute to improvements in sport technology, research, innovation and development in the region. The relative political and economic stability of the Southern Africa is an advantage which should be utilised by sports authorities to drive the necessary changes that are required to enable sport to make that quantum leap forward. 

Instead of engaging expensive consultancies or sending athletes to be developed at sports academies in Europe and the United States, Southern Africa should actually draw inspiration from Cuba to be a trendsetter, providing practical experiences for the rest of Africa and other less privileged regions of the world. In this connection, it is interesting to note that world 100m and 200m sprints champion, Usain Bolt, trains most of the time in his native Jamaica and travels abroad for competitions. Most of the Cubans, if not all, live and train in their country. 

Knowledge is power. To this end, Southern Africa sports authorities need to desist from sending elite athletes abroad but rather have the region’s sports scientists and coaches to work with them to gain further knowledge as to how they can assist such athletes. Failure is not an option!

May 2014
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