After a great performance at the 2014 world championships, Cuba took a step back in 2015, especially in freestyle. After taking home four freestyle medals in Tashkent, Cuba took home none in Las Vegas, despite all their 2014 medalists participating. Even seven-time world level champion Mijain Lopez, on the Greco side, finished a disappointing second. Ismael Borrero, 59 kg Greco, was the lone bright spot as he took home the world championship gold.
We have been here before. In 2010, Cuba won five world championship medals, stumbled to three in 2011 and, at the London Olympics, won just two medals. They won five medals at the 2007 world championships and then followed that with just one at the 2008 Beijing Games. The Cubans are inconsistent, this it not breaking news. They do not have the resources and support in their athletics program that most countries do. Add to that rumors of match fixing, which would be understandable given how much of a difference extra money would make back home, and it is nearly impossible to know what we’re going to get from the Cuban contingent.
On the financial front, Cuba may have a lifeline coming in the thawing of U.S./Cuba relations. Unfortunately for the current crop of athletes, however, the changes will be slow enough that they are unlikely to see much benefit from it. As long as the embargo remains in place, which it does currently despite calls from President Obama to lift it, not much will happen. There is a real chance, though, that it could be lifted during the next President’s tenure, if relations continue on their current path. This could open up more opportunities for athletes to train in the United States and aid the Cuban economy making the situation better at home. The next generation of Cuban wrestlers may have significant advantages over those competing now.
Regardless of how many Cubans end up on the podium in Rio, they bring a certain flair to the proceedings. Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez (57 kg) is so well known for his throws and explosive maneuvers he has put the phrase “Bonne Bombs” into the wrestling lexicon. Mijain Lopez (130 kg) is an absolute monster and can manhandle the largest men in international wrestling. By and large, the Cubans are fun to watch. Their willingness to go for it does sometimes cost them matches a more conservative approach might win, but it is a great thing for the spectators.
With six of the ten wrestlers Cuba is taking to Rio having a world level medal of some sort on their resume, they have high hopes for a successful Olympics. However, the recent past suggests they could struggle. While Mijain Lopez should be fine and Ismael Borrero is the defending champ, Borrero did not medal in 2013 or 2014 and all of the freestyle athletes have to prove 2015 was an anomaly. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they come home with five medals. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone if they end up with just one or two. Either way, keep an eye on them and enjoy. They are worth watching, win or lose.