|The man who set
the wheels in motion
By: Bob Willingham & Barnaby Chesterman
most the name Roberto Lewis Cover will not mean a great deal. He's
entering his sixth decade, he's foreign and he's never won any international
honours in judo. Even walking around the Santiago de Cuba stadium
in his native Cuba at an international judo tournament, the true measure
of the man seems to go unnoticed.
But behind his big animated face and booming laugh lies an extraordinary
influence on world judo, of which few are aware. Britain and France
once dominated women's judo whilst the Japanese were slow to embrace
the merits of offering equal treatment to male and female athletes.
And while Japan dithered to get its ship in order, a new superpower
emerged from waters far away: Cuba. In 1989, Cuba won its first World
Championship Gold medal, courtesy of Estela Rodriguez in the Open
weight category. Since then Cuban judo has experienced the 'ketchup
effect' - you have to wait years for something to happen and then
it all comes gushing out - culminating in 3 Gold, two Silver and a
Bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships in Birmingham - and that
was just the women's team.
And the man who discovered Estela Rodriguez: Robert Lewis Cover His
own judo career was fairly undistinguished internationally, although
he was a star at national and continental level, regularly winning
Gold medals at both -93kg and in the Open category. He came a long
way from the eight-year-old boy who was banned from going to judo
by his mother because it was no different from "bull-fighting".
"I can't tell my mother I was startin' judo because she don't like
it," he said in his animated Caribbean-English, communicating as much
with actions and expressions as with the words themselves. "I say
to my mother: 'I going to practice judo'. She say: 'Ohh, you going
to a bull fight?' I say: 'No, I not practice bull fight, I practice
judo'. But she don't understand."
Robert hid his love of judo from his mother for many years. When he
was given pocketmoney for sweets, he would put it in his elephant
tin (the Cuban equivalent to a piggybank) and save up. It was maybe
just 10 cents at a time, but he put it away until he had the 5 pesos
he needed to pay his monthly fees at his local club. There he was
taught by Antonio Fong, a Cuban of Chinese decent.
In 1972 he fought in his first international competition in Romania.
Even though he had been training for 12 years, his mother was still
blissfully unaware of his competitive exploits and believed he was
in Santiago at the time. But Robert fought well and the local press
in his home-town of Guantanamo covered his progress. His mother would
soon find out.
"In Guantanamo my friend go and see newspaper - my picture was there.
He go to my mother and say: 'Irene, where is your son?' She say: 'He
is in Santiago.' And he say: 'I don't think so, your son is in Romania.'
And she say: 'I don't believe it, my son is in Santiago.' So he ask
her again: 'Are you really sure he is in Santiago?' She said: 'Yes.'
So he show her the newspaper and he say: 'Who is that?' And she say:
'I see it but I don't believe it.'"
Robert's mother was aghast and still refused to believe it until her
boy returned home and she confronted him.
"The first thing she said when I come back is: 'Robert, where you
was?' I say: 'Mum, I was in Romania.' And she say: 'Now I believe
it!'" Robert's mother finally came round to the idea that judo and
bull fighting did differ slightly, (not least because of the lack
of bulls, swords and matadors). She accepted his passion and went
on to encourage it but Robert's competitive career would ultimately
end in disappointment.
At this moment in the interview with Robert, drama ensues as a fighter
is carried out on a stretcher. She had just been the victim of Estela
Rodriguez, but Robert seems unfazed: "She is in good hands," he says.
But back to his career. Robert never fought at the Olympics. In 1976
the Cubans only took three fighters and they picked another fighter,
Ibanez, (usually +93kg) in the -93kg category ahead of Robert. Then
in 1980 he was the first choice, but at 28 they said he was too old.
They had two younger fighters, both of whom he beat in the national
championships and in Olympic qualifying tournaments. "I beat them
both in national competition and then I beat them again. You know
what they tell me: 'You are old, you cannot go to Olympic Games because
you are old man.' I couldn't believe it."
Instead of competing at the Olympics, he retired and turned his hand
to coaching, and what an effect he had. Always one to rock the boat
wherever he went, Robert was teaching in a school back home in Guantanamo
when he decided to set up a women's judo team. But his school president
was outraged. "He say: 'You are mad, you are crazy. It is not possible
here.'" But Robert was determined and he started a group and trained
them with boys.
After a couple of years, the school received an invitation to a women's
judo competition in Havana. The school president would have to accept
Robert's team. He took four girls to the competition and between them
they won five Gold medals - Estela won both the +72kg and the Open.
other girls moved on to the Cuban national team but Estela stayed
with Robert and learned her trade. He didn't think she was big enough
for a heavyweight and she was left hungry by the miserly portions
offered for school lunches. So he arranged for her to work in the
school kitchen where she could eat all she wanted.
"I have to put her in the kitchen and I say eat all the food and she
was happy with that. She can eat all that she wants so she make more
fat and I happy with that because she more difficult to throw."
Under Robert's tutelage Estela went on to win the Pan American championships
in 1987. She was prevented from competing at the Olympics in 1988
in Seoul because Cuba boycotted but the next year in Belgrade she
became Champion of the World. And Cuban women's judo has never looked
back since. The ketchup keeps pouring out of the bottle. Robert's
role now is to oversee the development of women's judo in Cuba.
So, if you ever see this man wandering around a judo tournament, remember:
he's the one who started it all off. Ronaldo Veitia Valdivie may be
the mastermind behind the current crop but Robert Lewis Cover set
the wheels in motion. A true unsung hero.