The first ever Havana Open Taekwondo Tournament, concluded late Saturday in the island nation’s capital, with the participation of 23 athletes from five other countries.
Cuba also won 13 silver and eight bronze medals at the budding sporting event that Cuba hopes will draw more and better international competitors next year, now that the second edition has been officially authorized by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), meaning tournament points will apply towards international rankings.
Cyprus, Mexico, Italy, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic sent athletes to the inaugural event, which Cuba devised to keep its athletes in competitive shape at home, since it is unable for now to fund their participation in international meets abroad, where they can gain points and rise in the rankings.
“Despite the limited presence of foreign competitors this time around, we tried to make the most of this first Havana Open to keep our athletes in contact with the atmosphere of pressure and commitment they need, and somehow compensate for the handicap of rarely taking part in tournaments outside of the country,” said Ramon Arias, head coach of the women’s squad.
Rosbelis Despaigne, winner of a bronze medal in the over-87 kilo category at the London 2012 Olympic Games, described the tournament as a special incentive for all Cuban taekwondo athletes.
“Having an international tournament here is a very important step forward in the development of our sport, allowing the youngest to go up against athletes of other countries and different strategies,” Despaigne said.
Cuba participated with a 35-member squad, but this edition of the open offered no points towards the world ranking.
That will change next year, said Carlos Banasco, president of Cuba’s National Taekwondo Federation, announcing the second edition will take place in the city of Matanzas, 94 miles east of Havana.
For now, the federation is concerned with preparing the national squad for the World Taekwondo Championships to be held July 15 to 21 in the city of Puebla, Mexico.
Cuba plans to send eight competitors (four in each category of men and women), said Banasco, adding the athletes have yet to be selected.
Lazaro Alfonso Pluma, trainer of the men’s national team, said he has been surprised by the first-class agility and skill of some of the athletes.
Taekwondo was introduced to Cuba in 1986 and since then, the island nation has won four Olympic medals, including Urbia Melendez’s silver at the 2000 Sydney games, Yanelis Labrada’s silver at Athens 2004, and Daynellis Montejo’s bronze at Beijing 2008, all three in the 49 kilo division.
At Sydney, Cuba’s Angel Volodia Matos (80+) won a gold medal, but was stripped of the prize for hitting a referee at Beijing 2008.
Cuba’s taekwondo athletes and fans are hoping Despaigne will be able to win that elusive Olympic gold medal for Cuba.