SANTIAGO, CUBA – Relatively small and short on resources, Cuba has long been an outsize power in amateur athletics, bringing back hundreds of Olympic and international medals in sports including boxing, track and field and wrestling.
Its efforts have been entirely state-run, with talented children entering government programs early and spending their young adult lives in the arms of an official program that focuses their every minute on athletic glory.
But in the neighborhood of Chicharrones in the city of Santiago, a wrestling-loving train conductor named Leandro Heredia Marrero is trying to replicate that success without the help of the government in a homegrown, neighborhood-backed program to support aspiring wrestlers.
Two years ago, Heredia Marrero, 55, started bringing children to Chicharrones for training and a tournament. The youths stay with local families, who often depend on small donations to feed the extra mouths and entertain the kids during the seven-day tournament. Local doctors and nurses volunteer their time to monitor the wrestlers’ health and treat any injuries.
“We did it on the spur of the moment, in a pretty improvised way,” Heredia said. “We didn’t have referees or all the equipment we needed, but finally everyone got behind it.”
Heredia was never a wrestler himself, but developed a fervent interest in the sport after his sons wrestled in state programs. He was formally trained as a referee by local sports schools, like the other referees in the Chicharrones events.
The second Chicharrones tournament began in late January with performances by local bands and circus performers, and the child participants dancing in a procession through the streets around the tournament site. Even though it’s not officially sanctioned, the local government gave its implicit blessing by, for example, lending some equipment for the events.
The more than 150 young wrestlers were divided into teams from various provinces across Cuba and the Chicharrones neighborhood itself, with Santiago province’s team taking the championship.
Events included freestyle, Greco-Roman wrestling and girls’ events. Participants lodged with some 70 families around the neighborhood. A state school donated a wrestling mat, and neighbors cleaned, painted and repaired the gym where the tournament took place. Homemade bleachers weren’t big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament.
Heredia, who has been conducting trains for 38 years, says his dream is creating a professional-quality wrestling school that can feed Cuban youths’ appetite for the sport.