HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is considering pulling out of the amateur World Boxing Championships in Chicago in October to avoid new defections by its boxers, Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Wednesday.
“Imagine all the sharks of the Mafia wanting fresh meat,” the convalescing 80-year-old Castro wrote in a column published on the front page of the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
“I must tell them: we are not keen on delivering it to their doorstep,” Castro said, commenting on an attempt by German boxing promoters to hire two of Cuba’s top fighters during the Pan-American Games in Brazil last month.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, two-time bantamweight Olympic champion, and reigning amateur welterweight world champion Erislandy Lara, who was captain of the Cuban boxing team, disappeared on July 22 during the games in Rio de Janeiro.
They were arrested by Brazilian police last week for not having travel documents while carousing at a beach resort outside the city and deported back to Cuba during the weekend.
Castro, who has not appeared in public since he underwent life-threatening intestinal surgery a year ago, said Cuban authorities were considering whether to change the roster of boxers who will compete in Chicago or not send a team at all.
Last month Castro accused the United States of stealing Cuba’s best athletes with promises of riches, saying the defecting boxers had been “knocked out” cold by U.S. dollars.
For years, some of Cuba’s top baseball players -- such as Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez -- have defected to the United States, drawn by million-dollar deals in the major leagues, a far cry from the low wages of state-run amateur sport in Cuba. More recently, Cuba’s legendary boxing talent has been hit by defections.
In December, Olympic boxing champions Yan Barthelemy, Yuriolkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis deserted while training in Caracas for the Panam Games.
They are now boxing professionally in Europe, where they signed contracts with the German company Arena Box Promotion.
Castro had said Rigondeaux and Lara would not be arrested on their return to Cuba and would be offered jobs in sports. But on Wednesday he suggested they would never again compete for Cuba after abandoning their team in Rio de Janeiro.
He quoted Brazilian press reports that said the two boxers were found at the beach resort in the company of prostitutes apparently provided by representatives of the German promoter.
“They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team,” Castro wrote. “An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat,” he said.
Arena Box Promotion said on its Web site the professional careers of Rigondeaux and Lara had ended before they began. The Hamburg-based company said the boxers were waiting for their German visas at a secret place when they were arrested.
The boxers claimed upon arrest that they had been duped, drugged and kidnapped by the boxing promoters and they told Brazilian police they wanted to return to Cuba.
On Wednesday, a repentant Rigondeaux said the two fighters went shopping with the promoters, began drinking Red Bull and vodka and eating so much they became overweight.
“We knew we had made a mistake. We became scared and stayed away from the team. There was no time to lose weight,” he said at his Havana home, where his joyful family was preparing to kill a pig for a homecoming roast.
Rigondeaux, who earns 650 Cuban pesos a month ($30), said he was waiting for orders from above, but hoped his boxing career in Cuba was not over.
“They are not traitors. They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented,” said boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson, a three-time Olympic and world amateur heavyweight champion.
Stevenson, who rejected million-dollar offers and the chance to fight Muhammad Ali, told Reuters: “It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”