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Cuba bans defector from Olympic Games


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 15, 2000

Politics has already claimed its first victim in the Sydney Olympics due to start next month.

Cuba is refusing to allow Niurka Montalvo, the Cuban-born world long jump champion who defected two years ago, to compete in the Olympics for her adopted country, Spain.

Over the weekend Cuba ordered its Olympic track team to abandon a training camp in Spain and transfer to Milan, Italy. The move came in response to protests by Spanish sports officials angry over what they described as a political decision by Havana to bar Montalvo from participating in the Games.

But the head of Cuba's Olympic Committee, Jose Ramon Fernandez, said the government had "every right" to take the action under the Olympic charter. Rule 46 says nationalized citizens must seek permission from their former homeland for three years after becoming citizens of another country.

Montalvo became a Spanish citizen last year after marrying a Spaniard in 1998.

"Our position regarding the stealing of athletes is legal, fair and ethical," said Fernandez in comments carried by the daily newspaper Granma, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.

Fernandez, who is also a Cuban vice president, said it was "shameful" for rich nations to try to win medals by using athletes raised in poorer nations.

Cuba has traditionally taken a firm line against Cuban athletes who defect, accusing them of betraying Cuba's revolutionary ideals for personal gain. Since her defection Montalvo has come in for a barrage of criticism from top-ranking Cuban sports officials who have questioned her motives in marrying a foreigner.

Montalvo has defended her marriage, explaining that the couple met in 1994 and that politics played no part in her reason to leave the island. She told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that after leaving Cuba she had hoped to continue representing her country but was turned down by Havana.

"I don't believe I am staining the dignity of the Cuban people at all," she said. "My dignity is just as intact as when I competed for Cuba. The only thing that is important is what one feels inside. I feel Cuban and Spanish."

Montalvo became one of Spain's leading Olympic hopes after she won gold at the World Championships in Seville last year. Because of different rules for that event, she was able to compete as a Spaniard.

Cuba's stance over Montalvo is part of a campaign to protect its amateur sports system from the increasing temptations its athletes face abroad. Cuba regards its amateur athletes as a powerful international symbol of the moral superiority of its socialist revolution.

Despite its size, Cuba boasts an astounding Olympic record with more medals that any other country in Latin America. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, Cuba finished eighth in the medal count.

But critics say Cuban athletes are amateur only in name, and in reality are heavily subsidized by the state. Top athletes can receive special privileges, including a car and a house, as well as the ability to travel abroad.

Montalvo is not alone among defecting Cuban athletes. Canoeist Angel Perez has been banned from competing for the United States in Sydney after he quit the Cuban team in 1993. He obtained U.S. citizenship last year and qualified for the U.S. team in June.

In the Granma article, Fernandez warned all Cuban-born athletes can expect the same treatment. "They have broken the commitment of honor they have with their people," he said. "It is unacceptable that they go and defend an adversary against their own land."

In Spain, sports officials have hit back, accusing Havana of violating the Olympic spirit by mixing politics with sport. They cite Clause 2 of the Olympic charter, which describes the Games as a "competition between athletes ... and not countries."

Spain's secretary for sports, Juan Antonio Gomez, said he regretted the position taken by Havana and labeled it "a political decision." Spain has also threatened to reconsider future cooperation with Cuban sports bodies, including allowing Cuban athletes to use Spanish training facilities.

Cuba pre-empted any Spanish action by ordering its 15-member track team -- including the high jump world record holder, Javier Sotomayor -- to leave its training base in Guadalajara, about 40 miles outside Madrid.

According to Spanish press reports, the team left its hotel Saturday, some of them in tears.

But Montalvo has not given up her hopes of competing in Sydney. Spanish sports officials are considering asking the International Olympic Committee to allow her to compete under the Olympic flag, a rare privilege afforded in special cases.

At the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980 some athletes were allowed to participate in this fashion. The same status was afforded to former Soviet athletes in the 1992 Barcelona Games.

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