Olympics A to Z: Five most successful Latin American athletes at the event
Cuba is the most successful South American nation with 78 gold medals.
The Latin America consists of 20 countries and covers almost 13 per cent of the earth’s land surface area. However, the continent is yet to live up to its sporting potential and relatively few Latin Americans have ever graced an Olympic podium.
Many countries in the continent punch above their weight in football, but the same cannot be said about other sports. More than half of Latin America’s Olympic gold medals, 78 to be precise, come from Cuba, where the Castro regime has dedicated vast amounts of state resources to achieving international sporting glory.
However, despite the odds stacked against them, few Latin Americans have managed to reclaim glory at the Olympic Games. In some team sports, they have dominated across several editions.
Let’s take a look at five of the greatest Latin American achievements in the history of the Olympic Games.
5. Nicolas Massu
Nicknamed “El Vampiro”, Nicolas Massu has a special place in the Olympic record books. He is the only male tennis player to have won two gold medals in the same edition of the Olympic Games. In fact, the Chilean’s two gold medals at Athens 2004, remains the Latin American nation’s only gold medals.
Massu defeated Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 in the opening match. This was followed by victories over American Vincent Spadea and Igor Andreev of Russia. The wins set up a meeting with former World No. 1 Carlos Moya of Spain in the quarter-finals, when the Chilean recorded a stunning 6-2, 7-5 victory. Another straight-set win over American Taylor Dent ensured his place in the final. In an epic five-setter, another American, Mardy Fish was beaten 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 by the Chilean in the final to clinch a gold medal.
Massu’s partner for the men’s doubles was fellow countryman Fernando Gonzalez. The duo beat Germans Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuttler 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 in the final. In doing so, Nicolas Massu created history in Athens by bagging two gold medals in the same edition.
4. Adhemar da Silva
Brazilian triple jumper Adhemar Ferreira da Silva has been one of the most outstanding Latin American athletes in the history of the Olympic Games. He won two gold medals in the triple jump event in consecutive editions.
In Helsinki 1952, the triple jumper was a cut above the rest. Prior to the Olympics, the Brazilian was the world record holder with a 16.01m jump. The triple jumper’s stunning performances saw him jump four times further than his own world record. His 16.22m jump in the final meant he was the new Olympic champion. Four years later in Melbourne, da Silva held his crown, with a 16.35m effort.
Da Silva was also a member of Sao Paulo FC and because of his heroics in the Olympics, there are two gold stars above the club’s emblem. The legendary athlete was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.
3. Cuba men’s baseball team
The Cuban baseball team is one of the most successful Latin American teams of all time at the Olympics. Baseball made its debut in the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. In five editions of the Games till Beijing 2008, the Cuban team played the leading role by reaching five finals and winning three of them.
The first title came in Barcelona, with an easy triumph against Chinese Taipei. In Atlanta 1996, they won against Japan 13-9. In Sydney 2000, the United States defeated Cuba in the final. Four years later in Athens 2004, the Cuban players recovered the crown by prevailing over Australia in the gold medal clash.
A powerhouse in baseball, the country failed to clear the qualifying tournament hurdle for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. This means that the team failed to qualify for the quadrennial showpiece for the first time ever.
2. Teofilo Stevenson
Regarded as the best amateur heavyweight boxer of all time, Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba was a boxing sensation. The Latin American had a powerful punch and knew how to finely move throughout the ring.
Stevenson won his first Olympic title at Munich 1972, when he beat US favourite Duane Bobick and Romania’s Ion Alexe en route to glory. Four years later in Montreal, the boxer beat another Romanian Mircea Simon in the final. In Moscow 1980, his third successive gold medal arrived after defeating hometown boy Pyotr Zayev.
The pugilist remains one of only three boxers to win three Olympic gold medals. In fact, he might have become a five-time gold medalist if the Cuban authorities had not boycotted the 1984 and 1988 editions of the Olympics. Stevenson received the Olympic Order in 1987.
1. Cuba women’s volleyball team
For a decade, the Cuban women’s volleyball team was unbeatable. Fondly known as the Spectacular Caribbean Girls, they dominated volleyball and won every available honour, thus making them the most successful Latin American athletes of all time at the Games.
Their Olympic feat began in Barcelona 1992, when they won their first gold medal. Coached by Eugenio George, the team consisted of stars like Mireya Luis, Regla Torres and Regla Bell. In Atlanta 1996, in a much more complex tournament that included a clash with the Brazilian volleyball players after the semifinals, the Cuban team held the crown by defeating China.
The most spectacular triumph was witnessed in Sydney. In the final game against Russia, the Cuban athletes were down in the first two sets. However, they produced a remarkable comeback to rescue the situation and win their third successive gold medal. The win helped their mark their achievements in the history books as it continues to reverberate as one of the greatest Latin American triumphs.