The Weigh in from London: A Political Salsa

By Michael Klimes: The death of the Cuban legend Teófilo Stevenson from a heart attack earlier last week opened a door in my mind about the relationship between politics and sport. I went back and watched some of the footage from his campaigns during the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics. At each competition, he won the gold medal with ease as he gilded through the tournament with the unimpeachable authority of a prince. He looked like one to boot with his memorable smile and unforgettable looks. To be reminded of his natural athleticism as I watched him depose of his opponents by that dazzling straight right hand left me spellbound. I was unable to find the complimentary adjective.

Kevin Mitchell, a veteran sportswriter and one of the better boxing journalists in the United Kingdom, produced a fine tribute which recounted the Cold War context of Stevenson’s life rather career well.

Mitchell hit the right note when he explained that Stevenson was invaluable to Fidel Castro’s revolution. He was both a potent symbol and propaganda tool. When the Cold War raged at its height and each superpower extended its tentacles to steer world affairs, Cuba was a small yet indispensable ally to the Soviet Union. The colour of its people, proximity to the United States and its charismatic leaders in Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, slotted comfortably into Moscow’s strategy of discomforting the US in its own backyard and elsewhere.

Policymakers in the Kremlin exploited genuine and in many cases legitimate anti-colonial sentiment as they supported “third world revolutions”. Much of the time, Moscow’s policies led to catastrophic consequences for the “people” they supported yet Stevenson’s commitment to Castro and the Cuban Revolution seemed earnest and genuine.

Stevenson actually managed, at least in my opinion, to live up to and represent a noble ideal which so many Marxists and communists of various strands (although they never admit their grotesque immorality) lacked and still lack. Stevenson’s efforts to cement the Cuban Revolution’s anti-imperialist image through his boxing achievements produced a fascinating spectacle where the finest amateur heavyweight of all time refused millions of dollars to turn professional and defect to the “decadent” US. His famous quip: “What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?" revealed his perspective.

With his incredible talent, Stevenson could probably have made considerable in roads into the heavyweight division of the 1970s but, unlike Muhammad Ali, whom he was often compared to, upheld his principles consistently. Ali’s womanising and backward statements in support of segregation undercut his reputation as a religious man of purity and conscience. ‘The Greatest’ was a masterful hypocrite.
However, that is not to say that Ali did not suffer for what he said or did and that there was no truth in his world view about the brutal racism blacks experienced in America. It’s just that Ali was brilliant at condemning other’s vices when he had the same vices himself. By contrast, Stevenson never seemed to be such a loudmouth and never turned his back on Cuba.

One could have accused Stevenson of being a pawn in the great game of regional and global rivalries of the Cold War. Castro’s regime definitely basked in Stevenson’s sporting glory just as The Nation of Islam had its best public relations spokesman in Ali. That said, both Stevenson and Ali took oppositional positions to power structures which they regarded as oppressive and reactionary.

Also, Ali and Stevenson cannot be held completely to blame if they were exploited by others for a wider cause or purpose. Fame, once it is acquired by any athlete, seems to attract very mixed blessings. An expectation or a certain image of a famous person’s life can get beyond their control and acquire a life of its own, quite distinct from any truthful reality of a situation.

It is not Stevenson’s fault if the political group he claimed allegiance with was autocratic and went back on many of its initial promises. Castro successfully emulated the failures of other morbid communist leaders throughout the twentieth-century.

Stevenson should be commended for representing integrity through his stellar amateur career and pride in his Cuban heritage. It was and is refreshing to have a memory of a man who showed that money is not everything in sport or, more significantly, life. He became a major boxing name with dignity and was fortunate not to suffer the celebrity obsessed craziness and materialism of Las Vegas. That city, in all of its seething contradictions, superficial glamour and commitment to extracting visitors’ money is an ample metaphor for the state of boxing today. So I salute Mr Stevenson who did not buy his values but earned them the hard way.

Michael Klimes is a journalist and writer based in the United Kingdom. He works for Japan’s leading news agency, JIJI Press, at the London bureau. He writes about a variety of topics. You can visit his website at: to see his interests. His twitter page is here:!/misaklimes

Article posted on 19.06.2012

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