Cuba is seeking to add to its 32 Olympic boxing gold medals in London after failing to get one for the first time since 1968 at the last games. One of the team’s backers stayed loyal since Beijing: Adidas AG. (ADS)
The German company extended its support to younger talent as well as elite athletes from the Communist nation in recent years, according to Cuban boxing coach Julio Mena. They get as many as three sets of apparel annually from an Adidas warehouse in Cuba, said Pedro Salgado, a Cuban who coaches Ecuador’s team. Adidas also provides gloves and other equipment, Mena said.
As Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike Inc. (NKE) is banned from trading with Cuba under a U.S.-backed blockade that dates back to 1962, Herzogenaurach, Germany-based Adidas is “spreading the net wide” by supporting Cuban athletes as it tries to increase business in emerging markets, Paul Swinand, a sporting-goods analyst at Morningstar Inc. (MORN) in Chicago, said.
“They’re hoping they can get medals and world exposure on the cheap,” Swinand said in a telephone interview.
At the London games, six of Cuba’s eight male boxers reached the quarterfinals in different weight categories. Flyweight Robeisy Ramirez, 18, fights Britain’s Andrew Selby at the ExCel Arena for a semifinal berth today.
Cuba’s tally of boxing gold medals is second only to the U.S., and heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon won three each. Adidas began backing a few elite Cuban athletes at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when most wore Cuban brand Batos, according to national taekwondo coach Ramon Arias. The relationship survived Cuba’s boycott of the 1984 and 1988 games.
‘Ain’t so Easy’
Several boxers defected to become professional after the last two games, weakening Cuba’s medal chances. More nations are also sending competitive teams, former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield said. Savon’s cousin, Erislandy, was one of the Cubans eliminated in the preliminary bouts in London.
“The Cubans used to blaze,” Holyfield, 49, said in an interview. “Now it ain’t so easy.”
Under the Adidas agreement, Cuban athletes wear the second- biggest sporting-goods maker’s apparel in medal ceremonies, Adidas spokeswoman Katya Schreiber said by phone. She declined to discuss the accord in more detail. Adidas also has deals with 10 other national Olympic associations, including Britain, Schreiber said.
The pact is unusual for Adidas, which normally backs “conservative” sports like soccer and could risk hurting its image in the U.S. because of political tension with Cuba, said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports marketing strategy at the U.K.’s Coventry University.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro often wore Adidas tracksuits in public before ceding command to his brother Raul in 2008 because of poor health. Swinand said outside the “extremely sensitive” Miami region, where many Cuban exiles live, he doesn’t see much danger to Adidas.
“If a Cuban boxer wins a gold medal and is a nice guy, people wouldn’t worry about politics,” Swinand said.
Adidas also provides free uniforms, gloves and head-guards to boxers for bouts at the London games, according to Venezuela boxing coach Alfredo Ramos. Some teams like the U.S., which uses Everlast Worldwide Inc, and Italy, backed by Asics Corp. (7936), have their own apparel supplier.
Away from the Olympics, Adidas is more selective about supporting boxers, according to P.K. Muralidharan Raja, the secretary general of the Indian boxing federation.
He said Adidas rejected his recent proposal to even buy 1,400 sets of equipment and apparel for boxers because the company said it wasn’t worthwhile to ship such a small amount from other countries.
“There’s a big market out there but they don’t seem interested,” Raja said in an interview.
Instead, Indian boxers buy Adidas gloves, head-guards and boots at shops when they go to tournaments in Europe because it’s cheaper than buying them in India, Raja said. Two of the country’s seven male boxers made the quarterfinals in London.
While Cuba’s population of 11 million is dwarfed by India’s 1.2 billion people, the island nation continues to coach thousands of boxers from age 10 upwards, Mena said.
“We’ve got the same Cuban boxing school as before, the one that has won 32 gold medals,” Mena, 62, said in an interview. “In every municipality there are boxing gyms.”
Cubans feel “great affection” towards Adidas in return for its loyalty, Mena said. When former Olympic champion Stevenson died at age 60 in June, a pair of red Adidas boxing gloves were laid on his coffin.
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