Continued from page 1

Cuba nonetheless devotes a considerable amount of its scant resources to developing amateur talent and has punched above its weight at international competitions, scoring relatively high in the medal tables for a nation of around 11 million people.

Former pugilists Felix Savon and the late Teofilo Stevenson are among the three boxers in history to win gold medals at three Olympic Games, and Cuba took seven gold medals out of 11 possible at Barcelona in 1992.

Yet low wages, decaying facilities and the lack of opportunities for athletes to test themselves against the best fighters on the professional circuit have all contributed to a long, slow decline and costly defections.

After Olympic champions Odlanier Solis, Yurioski Gamboa and Yann Barthelemy walked away from training in Venezuela in 2006, the Cuban boxing delegation was left short-gloved two years later in Beijing and went home without a single gold for the first time in 36 years.

The debacle set off a flood of national soul-searching, with Castro himself calling for a frank and honest reappraisal of “every human and material resource we dedicate to the sport. We should be profound in our analyses (and) apply new ideas, concepts and knowledge.”

In 2011, the country lowered the age of competition from 11 to 9 years old, beginning with a pilot program in Havana, in line with many other countries’ boxing programs, and going semi-pro could be the next step toward regaining Olympic glory.

In 2015, World Series league fighters will be battling for 30 automatic tickets for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro the following year. AIBA will also hold an individual competition with 70 automatic bids.

Cuban defectors have already shown they can be successful at any level. Guillermo Rigondeaux, who fled in 2009 after a failed defection attempt two years earlier, holds the pro title in the super bantamweight class, and Gamboa was world featherweight champion in 2010.

Island boxers interviewed by the AP were hesitant to talk about money, but their eyes lit up when asked about the league and what Cuba will bring to the competition. They spoke of having to learn to be more defensive as the lack of headgear would leave them more exposed to knockout, but expressed confidence that they’re up to the task.

“I think that without boxers from Cuba it wouldn’t be a great championship due to our country’s skill at this sport,” said Julio Cesar La Cruz, world titleholder in the light heavyweight class. “It would be part of my arsenal. It would be good to test myself there with the same goal (as always), which is to be an Olympic champion in Rio.”

___

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.