Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Orienteering in Cuba: The Path of Hope

Imagination, passion, will. Three words to describe the culture of Orienteering in Cuba. And hope! With the help of Fidel Bonilla Machín, Dotmaro Valdés Camacho and José Angel Nieto Poblete, we get to know a little about the history of orienteering in the Caribbean archipelago since its beginning in the 1970s up to the present day.

It was in 1972 that orienteering first came to Cuba. Brought by the Bulgarian partisans of the “Georgi Dimitrov” brigade and boosted by Atanas Georgiev, then President of the Bulgarian
Orienteering Federation, orienteering quickly enjoyed huge interest from the authorities of the country who recognised the tremendous value it carried, both at an educational level and from a recreational point of view.

In the early 1970s focus on education was a priority for the Government of Cuba, and important steps were taken with the construction of many new Polytechnic Schools throughout the country. The appearance of orienteering in Cuba turned out to be exactly the right thing in the right place at the right time. Orienteering was especially cherished from the beginning, and quickly included in the Circles of Tourist Recreation school course in 1972/1973, so giving the students at Polytechnic Centres and Pre-Universities the mission to take forward its implementation and development.

The early years

As with all other sports in Cuba, orienteering went through several stages in the process of growth and consolidation, in particular regarding improvement of the means employed, the acquisition of technical skills and the organisation of events. From the initial moments with the Bulgarian brigade until the early 1980s we can look back on a mighty steep development curve in all these areas.

Looking back to the early days, we can see that all the events were single-day. There were no classes or age groups, and there was no stepwise initiation programme that made it possible to get positive results in a consistent way. People trained, it’s a fact, but their lack of technical skills put the competitors at the same level of competence and often the winner was an “honourable” unknown.

The first orienteering work in the Circles of Tourist Recreation was undertaken in August 1973 under the direction of INDER – the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation. 1974 began with activity increased in the Circles. At this time the names of Henry Godofredo Caballero, Manuel Pimentel and Dotmaro Valdés Camacho, among others, played a significant role in the promotion and development of the sport. The desire to do more, to do better, was huge. One can guess a first important landmark.

The zenith

In May 1974, during the Inter-Provincial Schools of Physical Education Meeting, Lenin Park was the venue for the first orienteering course in Cuba with a minimum of technical requirements: maps, compasses and control points. Two months later, in an event sponsored by the Circles of Tourist Recreation, the first Relay event was held, and in August the first junior race at national level that was not part of the Tourist Recreation events programme took place, with Dotmaro Valdés Camacho and Alejandro Emilio Ramos Rodríguez doing the course planning. The Cuban Orienteering Federation was also formed in 1974, and four years later Cuba joined the International Orienteering Federation as provisional member, a status that it still holds.

The number of events held all over the country grew exponentially. Competitors became divided into classes, there was development from one-day events to events of several days, a significant number of maps were created and electronic time-keeping was introduced. The rivalry between Universities was huge and unusual in a sport so young, and the training of the athletes was now organised to provide work-out plans at different levels. National seminars and initiatives for the development, protection and stability of orienteering were held. Above all, there was a huge effort by the Cuban Orienteering Federation to align their rules and competition organisation with IOF’s Rules and Guidelines. The popularity of the sport had reached a new peak.

The international contact arose logically in this context of growth of the sport. This was the “golden era”, as defined by Dotmaro Valdés Camacho. He recall some highlights: “We went out into the international arena, participating in several national events organised in the German Democratic Republic, plus the Bulgarian Cup, the 5 Days of Jicin in the former Czechoslovakia, and the O Ringen in Sweden, and we organised an international event in Cuba attended by athletes from all the military socialist countries”.

The settled period

If the 1970s saw the launch of orienteering in Cuba, marked by significant growth of the sport all over the country, the 1980s were the consolidation era. Highly supported by the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, five national events were held each year and international participation was subject to a selection process, with about 15 men and women athletes competing abroad to represent Cuba in at least four annual competitions.

Memorable events were staged at Pinar del Rio, Sancti Spiritus, Las Tunas and Taguasco. Names such as Edel Reina, José Antonio Medero, Yalay Ramos and Mayelin Gómez stand out as strong competitors, whilst Enrique Martín and Ariel García Pérez did an extraordinary job in promotion. Oblivious to the apparent contradiction between competitive practice and recreational activity, the sport of orienteering in Cuba continued to grow, preparing for the great leap... that would not appear.


Cuba suffered an extended special period of economic crisis, resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resurgence of the U.S. embargo from 1992. The economic depression experienced during this special period was particularly hard in the first half of the decade, with the economy contracting by 36% in the period 1990-93. Orienteering, as with all activities and services in Cuba, did not escape the crisis, entering a spiral of recession which would remain for many years.

The current President of the Cuban Orienteering Federation, Fidel Bonilla Machín, speaks of those times where the priority was “to defend the most basic principles of a socialist society”, but remembers that the sport was kept alive during those particularly difficult times “thanks to the tremendous enthusiasm of those who remained attached to orienteering, recognising the importance of the sport in the integral development of teachers, coaches and students”.

Orienteering today

Today, elite orienteers do not exist in Cuba. It is not a priority for the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation to invest in orienteering for results, as with boxing, baseball, volleyball and many other sports. But it is undeniably an important mass participation sport, and there is support in developing a large number of events and promoting educational activity. Children study, learn, practice and compete in orienteering in all primary and secondary schools in the country.

Today there are about 1,200 regular orienteering competitors in Cuba, mainly living in 9 of the 15 provinces. The people who annually make contact with the sport amount to more than a hundred thousand through recreational practice, permanent courses, basic educational courses and teaching activities. Fidel Bonilla Machín pinpoints the Federation’s objective: “we aim to see orienteering included in every Physical Education programme”.

The President of the Cuban Orienteering Federation makes a laudatory mention of José Angel Nieto Poblete, Vice-President of the Spanish Orienteering Federation, referring to him as “a good friend who, in the past four years, has put all his interest and dedication into orienteering in Cuba”. He explains his role: “Firstly, acquainting himself with how the Cuban sports system works and then through clinics and seminars, preparing courses and managing contacts with national and international organisations.” And the last words: “There are many orienteers in this country who know him and are grateful for the work he has been doing”, he says.

José Angel Nieto Poblete, Mr. Ambassador

Passionate orienteer and committed leader, the Spaniard José Angel Nieto Poblete is a true ambassador of Orienteering, particularly in the South American continent. Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Uruguay, Guatemala and Cuba are just some of the countries he visits regularly and in which we can see, at the level of promotion and development of our sport, his distinctive mark. Hence, his point of view is crucial in understanding the present state of Orienteering in Cuba.

“In Cuba, Orienteering is a very popular sport, practised in the island for several years now and part of the school curriculum. The economic situation in Cuba, however, has made the sport slip to very low levels, and it is currently regarded largely as a recreational activity. But the lovers of this sport work with huge enthusiasm, trying to regain the former levels of popularity.

My collaboration with the Cuban Orienteering Federation is focused on development efforts along new lines set by the Government. We seek to take advantage of the work that is developed in the Provinces, using the greater numbers of interested people to achieve the creation of new clubs. There is a dearth of quality maps, but the work being done with the sparse resources available is of great value. Many of the flags, punches and maps used are hand-crafted. This way we can continue to see events happening everywhere.

All of this means that we continue our commitment in Cuba, making sure the country is prepared in the best way possible to set up any kind of competition, at any time. In my previous visit to Cuba, in January and February this year, I drew the map of La Habana Vieja and now I’m back to do a revision of the map. Our expectations are that in January 2015 we can organise here a competition at international level, which would of course be a fantastic showcase for our sport and ensure its final projection in Cuba. I hope that all goes well, that the promotion of the event is a success and that ‘orienteering tourists’ might enjoy this truly unique opportunity.”

See the original article at Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation.

[Photo: Jose Angel Nieto Poblete]

Joaquim Margarido

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