Edition No. 30. Spring, 2002. Today is
The man who set the wheels in motion
Roberto Lewis Cover

By: Bob Willingham & Barnaby Chesterman
Roberto Lewis CoverTo 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.

The 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.

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