But if you were looking closely, you might have see a foreshadowing of the deal flash past on the track, where since last season some standout Cuban athletes have been competing in gear supplied by U.S. companies.
If legendary Cuban hurdler Dayron Robles competes at the Pan Am games in Toronto this summer, he’ll do so in Nike shoes, a move unthinkable until recently. Even three years ago, Cuban track and field athletes wore Adidas regardless of their personal brand preference, and a long list of rules kept American companies from doing business with Cuba’s state-run sports system.
But two years ago, the country’s track and field federation quietly relaxed regulations, allowing athletes greater autonomy regarding appearance fees and apparel deals, and hinting at the economic changes President Obama’s December proposal calls for.
Brand mismatches between athletes and their national federations aren’t rare. Athletics Canada, for example, is sponsored by Nike but can’t stop athletes from seeking deals with other outfitters. When Donovan Bailey set the 100-metre world record at the 1996 Olympics, he wore a team-issued Mizuno kit and spikes supplied by Adidas, his primary sponsor.
Since the Castro regime outlawed pro sports in 1961, Cuban athletes hadn’t had that luxury.
While the country’s prohibition often prompts baseball and boxing stars to leave Cuba to pursue pro careers, track and field athletes have competed at the sport’s top level with the national federation acting as a de facto agent. When meets paid appearance fees and prize money to Cuban athletes, the federation charges a steep commission. And when the federation chose German-based Adidas as its official outfitter, the deal applied to every athlete on the national team.
“They don’t give you the necessary things for training so you’re always upset, and what’s worst is that people generally don’t know anything about it and will judge me by the results,” Robles told The Associated Press in 2012. “Nobody comes around to ask about anything, but they do come to demand results.”
Robles re-appeared on the track circuit in the summer of 2013, competing for a Monaco-based club and wearing Nike gear.
He has since returned to Cuba’s program but the federation adopted a softer stance on individual endorsement deals. By the end of 2013, the state-run body was allowing athletes to hire their own agents and reach agreements with outfitters besides Adidas.
Nike couldn’t confirm whether it was compensating Cuban athletes with cash in addition to product, nor whether the deals were made thru its U.S. office or an overseas subsidiary.
Either way, Robles competed in Nike gear all of last season, and sprinter Yunier Perez ran the fastest 60-metre time in the world last year wearing Nike. But hurdle star and Pan Am medal contender Orlando Ortega still wears Adidas.
“It’s going to be a huge opportunity,” Mychasiw says. “It’ll be like baseball and boxing. I’m sure Under Armour isn’t too far behind (seeking deals with Cuban athletes).”
In 2010, Raul Castro’s government issued 75,000 new business licenses, hoping to encourage entrepreneurship and create jobs to balance the unemployment caused by public sector layoffs. A year later the government legalized the buying and selling of property among individuals, but limited ownership to two homes — a residence and a vacation property.