Mike Rowbottom

As the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics loom closer (surely you hadn't forgotten?) there’s a new documentary film out - Running for the Revolution - that chronicles the life of Cuba's Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena.

It details a sporting career that peaked with his unique Olympic 400 and 800 metres double at the 1976 Montreal Games and a subsequent life spent in the service of sport and country.

Five years in the making, the feature-length film was made with the support of World Athletics Heritage - Juantorena is a longstanding member of the World Athletics Council - the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese agency Dentsu, and it was produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Mark Craig.

"If ever we need proof that sport doesn’t just mirror social and political trends but shapes them, 'Running for the Revolution' is it," World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said.

An excellent review of the film on the World Athletics site picks out Juantorena’s recollection of his post-Montreal homecoming, when he was met at the airport by the man who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution and headed its Communist Government until he stepped down through ill health in 2008: "Upon return, he was the first to descend from the plane and was greeted with open arms by Fidel Castro. ‘That was the best, best, moment of my life,’ Juantorena says. ‘I felt proud, very proud.’ He carries that pride for his country to this day."

A new documentary is being released on the life of Cuba's Olympic legend and longtime sports administrator Alberto Juantorena ©Getty Images
A new documentary is being released on the life of Cuba's Olympic legend and longtime sports administrator Alberto Juantorena ©Getty Images

At which point, if this were a film of a certain age, the screen would move into wavy flashback mode…

In 1992, shortly after the Barcelona Olympics, I was in Havana to cover the Athletics World Cup being staged by the sport’s international governing body, then still known as the International Amateur Athletics Federation.

After writing my daily reports for my new paper, The Independent in London, I was to do a sizeable colour piece for the Independent on Sunday.

The problem was right there - order of events.

After the caravan of the World Cup event had moved on, Havana reverted to its everyday reality as an economical battleground.

An economy that had lost all its old socialist trading partners now found itself increasingly beleaguered by the trade embargos imposed in the wake of the 1959 revolution by its US neighbours 70 miles across the Florida Keys.

Days before the World Cup had got underway, the United States Congress extended its embargo by forbidding all subsidiaries of US companies worldwide from selling goods to Cuba.

Alberto Juantorena wins the first part of his unique Olympic double at the 1976 Montreal Games, setting an 800 metres world record of 1min 43.50sec ©Getty Images
Alberto Juantorena wins the first part of his unique Olympic double at the 1976 Montreal Games, setting an 800 metres world record of 1min 43.50sec ©Getty Images

The ration cards issued in the 1960s, which had become almost an irrelevance in the 1970s and 1980s, were once more necessary items - and not just for the poorer sections of society. There were queues for bread, beans, eggs, rice.

The scarcity of petrol and oil had prompted the Government to encourage the use of bicycles among its citizens. In the hectic streets of the capital, cyclists wove perilously among an increasingly battered generation of Lada cars.

Meanwhile I needed to write a penetrating first-person piece about Cuban sport.

With piercing brilliance I decided it was time to talk to the man who, for many people, exemplified Cuban sport - Juantorena. I got a number for his office and rang it. I was told that Mr Juantorena was on vacation after the World Cup, with the additional useful information that he was staying 150 kilometres from Havana.

The main event was over, all my colleagues had flown home, I was adrift in the Havana Hilton Hotel,  there was nobody to talk to about anything - and my deadline was looming…

In desperation I sought out Sport City - the sprawling range of facilities to the south of Havana that contained venues for volleyball, football, basketball, cycling, water polo and athletics among others, as well as a sports institute from which 95 per cent of Cuba’s leading sporting figures, such as triple Olympic boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson and newly established Olympic high jump champion Javier Sotomayor, had graduated.

Cuba's longtime leader Fidel Castro was a winning athlete in Havana before he was a politician ©Getty Images
Cuba's longtime leader Fidel Castro was a winning athlete in Havana before he was a politician ©Getty Images

The only thing going on that October day, however, was a frantically intense basketball match between, as I discovered, Industriales and Equipo Havana. I got talking to one of the coaches, and then to another spectator, Tomas Herrera, who was the national basketball commissioner.

"We don’t have the scorekeeping system because there is no power," he told me. "But we are playing. We have a problem with getting shoes. But we are playing. We have a problem with the basketballs. We used to play with new ones. Not any more…"

Shortly afterwards The Independent of London had announced its intention to sponsor the Cuban Basketball Federation for one new basketball. That required a visit to the commissioner’s office and much filling out of forms. Handing over the dollars was not a simple procedure.

In the course of this complex transaction a lady looked in on us from the next door office - that of Alberto Juantorena. With the assistance of my new sponsoree, I managed to ask if Mr Juantorena would be available to speak to within the next, say, 24 hours.

It turned out that he was considerably less than 150 kilometres away from Havana, and that I would be able to speak to him the next day. In my glee as I returned to the Hilton I remembered that I still needed to organise a translator. While Mr Juantorena spoke English, he might not want to speak English…it depended.

The next day my translator, a young woman who worked at the University, arrived a bit late and flustered at the hotel. She apologised. She had had to queue for bread that morning and it had taken longer than expected.

Had she not been working for The Independent that day, she would have been continuing with her work translating an academic paper on electrical engineering.

And so I returned to the small, shabby office at the institute, its bare aspect only partially relieved by two portraits of Che Guevara and three rather sad looking pot plants. Inside it, with an ambiguous smile, sat the Olympic 400 and 800m champion, Cuba’s Vice-President of Physical Education and Recreation, IAAF Council member and national hero.

Alberto Juantorena's performance at Montreal 1976 remains historic ©Getty Images
Alberto Juantorena's performance at Montreal 1976 remains historic ©Getty Images

After overseeing the major international event just passed, even the man with the nine-foot stride who had been known in his prime as El Cabailo - The Horse - appeared to have slowed to a trot.

"I think I would prefer to run the 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500 metres and the marathon at the Olympics than organise a World Cup," he said with another smile.

He went on to say that his ambition was to coach a future Olympic champion but added: "I don’t have the time to do it. They give me a hat and I have to wear it."

He then explained the special attention Cuba paid to sport, beginning with a 45-day plan for three-month old children working on their flexibility and circulation, adding how he would regularly lead five kilometre runs around the country that were participated in by all ages.

After winning his Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Sotomayor was reported to have received a fridge from the government.

"There are no privileges," Juantorena said. "There is no money. Only the recognition of our people.

"I like my life. I am proud to be Cuban, especially at this time when we are fighting to defend our dignity, our flag and our socialist system. I really believe that.

"It is a very high quality of our people, that they like difficult situations to face. It is a sort of challenge."

Inside the Estadio Panamericano, where the World Cup had taken place, there was a corridor housing an exhibition of Cuban athletics memorabilia. Among the photographs and Olympic medals donated by home athletes there stood a picture dating from 1945 of a slim, clean-shaven figure, arms pumping, crossing a finish line – "Fidel Castro ganando en 800 metres."

There was a politician who truly understood a sporting success coming home.