Cuban Olympic boxing champ abandons team in Mexico

Cuban athletes are poorly paid amateurs. Many defect with the hope of turning pro and securing multimillion-dollar contracts.

08 Jul Cuban Olympic boxing champ abandons team in Mexico

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – Olympic boxing two-time gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez abandoned Cuba’s national team during a training camp in Mexico, the Cuban Sports Institute said on Thursday, the second major defection to hit the Communist-run country’s boxing squad this year.

Cuba’s National Sports Institute said on its website that Ramirez, 24, who won bantamweight gold in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and flyweight gold in the 2012 games in London, was “turning his back” on his teammates.

“Attitudes like this are far from our values and the discipline that characterizes our sport,” it said.

Ramirez’s immediate whereabouts are unknown.

The Caribbean island nation prides itself on punching above its weight in world sports, nurturing athletes from an early age under a Soviet-style system instituted after the 1959 leftist revolution.

With a population of 11 million people, Cuba has won 220 Olympic medals, including 77 gold – more than any other country in Latin America – and it has won the most Olympic gold medals in boxing of any country worldwide.

But Cuban athletes remain poorly paid amateurs and many defect with the hope of turning professional and securing multimillion-dollar contracts, often heading to Cuba’s former Cold War foe the United States where Cubans still get special immigration treatment.

This past March, two-time world champion in the flyweight category Joahnys Argilagos, 21, also abandoned the team during a tournament in Mexico.

Cuba has tried to counter the allure of big money by instilling in its athletes a strong sense of patriotism and offering financial bonuses to those who return from international competitions.

But the defections have continued. Among the Cuban boxing champions who defected to compete professionally are Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara and Luis Ortiz.

Cuba’s most popular sport – baseball – has also suffered from many defections which are seen as partly responsible for its national team slipping to fourth place in global rankings after dominating for many years, according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

A few of the star players who left Cuba to play Major League Baseball in the United States include Jose Abreu with the Chicago White Sox, Aroldis Chapman with the New York Yankees, Yoenis Cespedes for the New York Mets.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; writing by Sarah Marsh, editing by G Crosse)

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