Mario Kindelan is one of my favourite boxers of all time, and arguably the greatest amateur boxer the world has even seen. Being Cuban and choosing to stay on the island, he never went on to a professional career. Life instead was spent honing a craft, its brilliance only on display in quarter-full sports complexes, 4 x 2 minute rounds marked by weird audio test tones, and marshaled by men in unflattering white togs...overweight and bulbous like abrupt but benevolent ice cream men in stark contrast to the lean, lithe combatants.
The reward was the goodwill of the state media and government...resulting in maybe a decent job post-career, a modest home, maybe a car or motorbike, etc. During and after Cuba's Special Period (the loss of aid from the now defunct USSR - resulting in really lean times in an already austere sphere), the rewards for being at the pinnacle (meaning: Olympic gold) of a broad pyramid of desperate boxing talent would be a pig or a Chinese bicycle. That's hard. "Sport is a fleeting moment." So much of Cuba's talent now, a much greater percentage than before, chooses to defect and take their chances in the pro boxing world - which of course is fraught with shadiness and suffering beyond the inherent difficulty of the profession.
The beginning of the arc and the base of the triangle is documented in a couple of films, both by Andrew Lang. The original documentation of the Havana Boxing Academy resulted in a one-hour PBS/Wide Angle program called Victory Is Your Duty. The film was ultimately expanded into a full-length film called Sons of Cuba.
The film(s) show boys as young as nine being groomed to represent Cuba on the world stage, such as it is for things like World Championships, the Pan-Am Games, the Olympics, and other avenues for "amateur" athletes in a 1950s or 1960s paradigm. Perhaps "groomed" is to benign a word. With the level of ascetic doggedness required by mere children...it's more like, to paraphrase Daniel Coyle, throwing a package of eggs at the wall and saving the couple of eggs that aren't destroyed. That's a tough row to hoe for a meager shot at a few benefits for your family, not really much beyond eating two or three times a day.
This isn't to romanticize the climate like so many well-heeled facade trumpeters in Che t-shirts. Screw that. The broadest theoretical edicts are spouted with a full stomach and some naive detachment. Everybody wants things beyond their grasp, even if it's a bottle of Coca-Cola or a few American dollars to take to the shop. Lang's films are careful to remain respectful of the Cuban state, both rooted in even-handedness and the knowledge that it would be required to even get the project made.
The person that is the shining light in Lang's work is the boys' coach, Yhosvani. From the filmaker's notes:
Although the narrative of our film is structured around the stories of two boys, the real hero of our film is the coach Yhosvani. He was the most dedicated, effective, and caring teacher I have ever come across. In conditions that most people would find unbearable I never once heard him complain or saw him lose enthusiasm. The joy of making these films is discovering these kinds of people and telling their stories. To me, they are bigger stars than you’d ever find in a Hollywood film. Like so many Cubans, Yhosvani’s salary was nowhere near enough to cover his necessities. He earned a standard state wage of about $15 a month. To put this into perspective, cooking oil (an essential part of Cuban cuisine) costs $2. Cubans have a ration book to cover some of their basic needs, but what it provides is not enough to live on. After using up his small amount of rationed cooking oil, someone on Yhosvanni’s salary would have to work for four days to be able to buy a replacement bottle. In order to survive almost every Cuban has had to develop an incredible resourcefulness: the black market plays a prominent role in many lives, as does an ability to repair absolutely anything (just look at the old cars which still dominate Cuban streets). People also exchange services a lot: You help me out with this, and I’ll help you out with that. Pulling together like this is really the only way to survive. As a result, I found Cubans to be incredibly generous and welcoming. At every house we filmed in, the families bent over backwards to make us comfortable, often blowing a large part of their monthly earnings on putting a meal on the table for us.
But despite this warmth and joy, there’s often sadness behind the smile. Many families are separated, with loved ones living abroad, and almost all are struggling to survive. These are the continuing effects of the collapse of global Communism, from which Cuba is yet to recover. I remember asking Yhosvani what his greatest pride was. "Being a father," he replied. "And your greatest disappointment?" "Not being able to provide for my children." I think many Cubans would echo this sentiment.
Yhosvani invested huge trust in us. He let us film absolutely everything and trusted that we’d use the material fairly. Although Cubans know and support their top boxers, few know the training they go through from a young age to get there. Yhosvani, and all of the Cuban crew, wanted that story see the light of day.
I always feel like I'm behind (I am) and I have lightning shots of anxiety that jolt through my body when I start thinking about the master to-do list and the balance in hand...exacerbated by circumstance and past decisions made. That and a pacing OCD that's the equivalent of scraping down to bare pavement after every minute snowfall. Over-delivering...........eventually. My pores open, my eyes dart, and my shoulders slump. There might be an unseen trigger that is tripped that will set me off in anger with flailing fists and an acid tongue. Then I think of my late grandfather, or the Khmer monks that married my wife and me, or the coach Yhosvani and I calm down before lashing out in what could be perceived as psychosis. Then I drill that hole or do that quarter of weld in a smooth motion or write that e-mail when I can sit down and then do it again. I like it when I pull in tight. You can move many tonnes of sand with a tablespoon and what's going on in the ether is irrelevant.
Again, it's not romantic. The stress can be high until you check yourself pre-"wreck yourself". There's something to be said about surfing the wave instead of getting swamped by it and then setting there pathetic like a wet cat. It takes consistent paddling and the accepting of your own human imperfection and frailty because the undertow may shoot you far further back than you ever imagined...irrespective of the abrasive and generally dissatisfied. Futility may be doled in tablespoons, but you only fail when you quit. The rock will crease and the pile will shift.
Sir Edmund Hillary from Nothing Venture, Nothing Win:
At various times I tried hard to study religious matters but I gained little long lasting satisfaction from them. There seemed to be so much that was sanctimonious and orientated to the next world. I read voraciously of theosophy, anthroposophy, and half a dozen other unorthodox philosophies. I tried desperately to understand the profound writings of Rudolph Stainer and Krishnamutri; I toyed with meditation, concentration, positive thinking. From all of them I gained some immediate inspiration, then slowly my enthusiasm faded. After a few years it faded for [Dr. Herbert Sutcliffe's] 'Radiant Living' too. I had the feeling I'd been trying to escape from life - and that I should go out into the world and get on with ordinary living.
Master Linji bows.
I have a framebuilder friend that ended up back into the game full-time after losing other, more lucrative fabrication jobs due to the effects of globalization and modern trade. He's also the only builder I know of that is a single parent. No spouse with a 'real job'. No family money. No other source of regular income. Nothing else that is sometimes unsaid. He said (I'm paraphrasing): "You know, I've decided to enjoy building bikes and not be stressed about it. I just do the best I can."
Master Linji bows again.