Cuba takes Olympic athletes outside Havana amid COVID-19 pandemic

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Mijain Lopez from Cuba has changed his daily routine since early September when he left home for the central province of Camaguey to continue his wrestling training amid the coronavirus outbreak.

As sports centers in the Cuban capital remain shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, elite athletes from the Caribbean island have been taken outside Havana to continue preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held from July 23 to August 8, 2021.

Lopez, who won golds at the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Summer Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, now looks to end his professional career in grand fashion with a fourth gold medal in Tokyo.

The 38-year-old athlete said that nothing compares with the idea of representing his country in an international competition.

“I am training hard to keep in good shape because the pandemic has not modified my main goal at the moment: becoming a four-time Olympic champion,” he told Xinhua.

During the health emergency, Cuban elite athletes have set up improvised gyms on rooftops, backyards and balconies to improve their fitness and performance while sheltering in place.

Since the onset of the pandemic on the island in March, Havana has reported more than half of the country’s confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Consequently, a first batch of athletes who had already qualified for the Tokyo games, or who are expecting to do so, traveled to the interior of the country.

Located some 500 kilometers away from Havana, Camaguey is among the country’s provinces with no COVID-19 confirmed cases registered over the past two weeks.

While Lopez expects to retire after the Tokyo Olympic Games, Cuban world long jump indoor champion Juan Miguel Echevarria, 22, is eager to participate for the first time at the international event.

“I think it is going to be a lifetime moment I will very much enjoy,” he said. “I want to meet people’s expectations of my performance.”

Echevarria’s coach Daniel Osorio, meanwhile, noted the importance of training sessions in Camaguey, saying that athletes have made significant progress over the past five weeks.

“We have been particularly working on aerobic and hamstring strengthening exercises in addition to checking that athletes regain their normal weight,” said Osorio, also a member of Cuba’s national commission of track and field.

Currently, 52 elite athletes continue to train in the central provinces of Camaguey and Sancti Spiritus, and about 150 will head to different parts of the country in the coming weeks.

Cuba has more than 1,500 elite athletes and nearly 15,000 pupils are trained at sports schools and academies, according to official figures.

So far, 41 Cuban athletes have qualified for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

During training sessions, athletes, coaches, and technical personnel are provided with sodium hypochlorite solutions while COVID-19 protocols have been implemented, according to sport authorities on the island.

Orlando Vento, the president of Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Recreation and Physical Culture, told reporters at a press conference recently that cleaning of surfaces, proper ventilation at sports facilities, and rigorous hygiene standards are critical points to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus.

“The first and foremost medal at the moment is to prevent athletes from getting infected with the disease,” he added.

Cuba has amassed 226 medals since its debut at the Paris 1900 Games, ranking first among the Latin American and Caribbean countries in Olympic history.

Its best performance took place at the Barcelona 1992 Games where the island nation placed fifth in the overall medal count.

Cuba expects to win nearly 20 medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games, with major chances in boxing, wrestling, judo, and track and field. 

by Yosley Carrero