One of the three greatest athletes Cuba ever produced was Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400 and 800 meter runs at the 1976 Olympics. (The other two were probably Teofilo Stevenson, the three-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion, and Javier Sotomayor, the high jumper whose world record of eight feet and one half inch has now stood for over twenty years.)
Juantorena was a magnificent specimen:
Back then, with his bushy unkempt Afro, and extraordinary running talent, I just assumed that he was a light-skinnned mulatto. In fact, that swarthy, somewhat racially indeterminate appearance would have made him look right at home fighting alongside Fidel and Che twenty years earlier.
But to look at pictures of Juantorena now, with his shorter, straighter hair and light eyes, it's hard to discern any black blood:
And with his strongly androgenized, Anglo-ish features, he looks almost like the chief of a police department in the South.
In any case, there are worse fates than going through life looking like El Caballo ("The Horse"), as Juantorena was known in Cuba.
I was reminded of Juantorena because Cuba has been in the news this week. But when I Googled him to see what he looked like now, I stumbled across the following picture, which made me wonder about something that had never occurred to me before. Is it possible Juantorena was on steroids?
He certainly dwarfed his competitors in the 800, both in terms of height (6' 2.5") and musculature. Usually when I say on this blog that someone is juicing, I'm completely convinced of it; I'm far from convinced about Juantorena.
But, it would be naive to entirely discount the possibility. He ran for a communist country at a time when the Eastern bloc was heavily doping its athletes. And his Polish coach would have been familiar with the advantage conferred by steroids.
On the other hand, Cuba, unlike East Germany, has never had the reputation of being a hotbed of doping. So, I'm agnostic on the issue. I just don't know.
What I do know is that as big a star as Juantorena was, and as good-looking as he was, he must have led a good life.
Even in Cuba.