John Angelos is the chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles. He has also been a leading voice for almost two decades on opening up relations between the United States and Cuba. Angelos helped organize the historic “home and home” series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban National Team. We spoke about the role of sports in Cuba and how that role may change following the death of Fidel Castro.
Dave Zirin: What is the role of sports in Cuban society and how would you say it differs from that in the United States?
John Angelos: The system is very different. This is a system that really revolves around an effort by the Cuban government after the  revolution to make sport of all type an integral part of life for all Cubans. They do that through a state-run group known as INDER: the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation. They promote sport and have a variety of local, regional, and national manifestations. There are youth academies in, I think, 20 or 25 or maybe even more sports. For American purposes, people would describe it as more of something like what we used to see in the old USSR in terms of a Soviet-style academy system that’s funneling the best players up. In the United States, we have something like that in a more formal way in the US Olympic Committee and various training centers, but that’s supported by public and private resources, where clearly the Cuban process is a centralized approach to funneling athletes where their talents can be optimized.
One of my friends in Havana, Margaret Alarcón, e-mailed me the following to help answer your question:
Since 1959, when Fidel Castro started the new process or post-revolutionary approach to sports, one of the main goals was to bring sports and physical education to all of the people on the island. Fidel considered access to sport and recreation a basic human right and an indispensable attribute in order for society to be better and for the people to have sound body and mind. At that time, professional sports were banned and so were private costly schools. Kids were selected using two basic screening methods: aptitude and attitude. The same process was introduced for the study of music, dance, etc, with the government coining the term cultura física (physical culture). The slogan coined during a speech many years ago (over forty) was “Sports are the right of the people,” and the goal was to eliminate economic or social impediments to kids playing any and all sports. Today, regardless of your personal interests, kids are playing stick ball, baseball, softball, basketball and now soccer, all over—in parks, on the streets—much like anywhere else in the world. The more classically elite sports (rowing, tennis, golf, swimming, diving, equitation, etc) are not as popular, mainly for economic reasons…the state needs more resources to make them available, and this is challenging under current circumstances.