Clark and Babanovic: Cuban experience brings sport home

Our course, An Educational Exploration of Sport and Physical Activity in Cuba, proved to be yet another successful year under the direction of Health Sciences professor Darwin Semotiuk. A class of 22 students embarked on the journey to Cuba, where we took part in the discovery of sport and physical activity in a country that enforces a ‘sport for all’ policy.

The group was hosted by the Cuban sport government who organized our daily endeavours to ensure we were able to experience as much as possible in the short time we had in Havana. The nine-day adventure entailed visits to educational and sporting facilities including a daycare and elementary school and national training facilities for gymnastics, volleyball and track and field. In just one week, our class experienced the Cuban sport lifestyle deeply embedded in the roots of their culture and pride.

Our first day of physically experiencing Cuban sport was at a community physical activity program located at a town square in Havana. We were welcomed by a physical activity director who allowed us to take part in the various activities being conducted. Young daycare students were learning a dance while the middle school children were having relay races. The elderly were taking part in a light aerobics exercise which later incorporated the young daycare children. After witnessing these groups play and enjoy activity together, we couldn’t help but be inspired by the enthusiasm of the program leaders and recreational participants. Prior to our departure from the park, we were able to exchange national anthems by having one of our very own Western students sing O Canada for the Cuban people.

Arriving back at the hotel, we immediately noticed three coaches and three athletes using the hotel pool as a means for training, despite the interference of tourists using the pool for leisure. The athletes trained for approximately four hours with intense instruction given by the coach. The training environment lacked swimming lanes, deep waters and private space. The unusual practice area at the hotel may not be ideal, yet several athletes seemed to come and go while treating our hotel as their training facility.

One of the major highlights of the trip was visiting the International School that specialized in the education of physical activity. The school houses more than 500 students from 85 countries who specialize in approximately 12 different sports. Although nobody from developed countries have attended the school, the education has been a means for students to go back to their respective countries and share their knowledge. Currently, the school is training three different athletes who will be competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games for their individual countries.

While touring the grounds of the school, we met a student from South Africa whose plans included finishing school and heading home to develop a program for underprivileged children who share a passion for soccer. It was apparent this particular student had a great appreciation for soccer and education and was excited to go back to South Africa to teach others about physical activity and sport. Overall, the international school displayed a sense of cultural diversity and acceptance to the varying groups of people playing and participating in a variety of sports.

After witnessing the international students practice, we traveled on to watch elite track and field athletes practice at the Pan Am stadium in Havana. The practice space was filled with varying competitive athletes who are currently training to become members of the Cuban National Track and Field Olympic team. The athletes trained for several hours in the still heat practicing their respective sports. Our group watched from the stands admiring their impressive skills and overall talent.

Later in the week, our group was able to take in a Cuban baseball game held at the Estadio Latinamericano. We were privileged enough to witness the Metropolitanos play against their rivals, Guantanámo. The stadium was filled with local fans who showed ongoing support throughout the game. Western students took this opportunity to hand out tennis balls to the children who were in attendance. This simple gift was graciously accepted by the youngsters who were later found throughout the stadium playing with their new balls. As the students watched on, it became highly rewarding to see the appreciation shine from the children’s faces.

Lastly, it is important for us to share our appreciation to those who made this trip possible. First, we would like to share a special thank you for the student travel support provided by the International Curriculum Fund Award and the Faculty of Health Sciences through the FHS Study Abroad Support Fund. A gracious thank you goes out to the 60 individuals and organizations that provided our group with sporting equipment, medical supplies, and school supplies, personal hygiene care products, clothing and shoes to donate to various groups within Havana. The humanitarian component attached to this credited course would not be successful without your generous donations. We would also like to thank professor Semotiuk for his hard work in preparing a very successful study abroad course and providing this unforgettable opportunity for all of us in Cuba.