A faded white wall frames a portion of the track in the middle of Matanzas, Cuba, just inches from the outside lane. Homes and apartments surround the track, and a quarter lap away, a grass backyard butts up against the outside lane.
It is about as far from the state-of-the-art track in Princeton, N.J., as you can get. At home in Weaver Stadium, the Tigers run on a polyurethane surface. They have locker rooms and stands for fans. Around campus they can sample hoagies and pizza from legendary campus restaurants.
But for one week in June, 70 Princeton track and field athletes traded those familiar surroundings to experience a diplomatic trip 55 years in the making. Over the course of eight days, the person-to-person diplomacy found on a rough track in three cities proved sports is universal.
Princeton was one school to participate in sporting events in Cuba this summer. According to the school, they were the first university to send an athletics team to the island nation. The Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team is competing in Cuba through Aug. 14.
In addition to events in Matanzas, Princeton also traveled to Santa Clara. While the Tigers coaches would have preferred facing off against Cuba’s “A” team, preparations for the Pan Am Games meant they ran against a “B” side.
“The coaches stressed that an international trip is first and foremost a competition trip,” aid Cecilia Barowski, a middle distance runner. “We needed to train before we left and had to be serious. It wasn’t the fiercest competition but we all ran hard.”
While the neighborhood came out to cheer everyone in Matanzas, the dirt track in Santa Clara had chalk lines for lanes. A dog decided to join one of the long distance races. But the competition was the common language uniting both teams.
Barowski connected with Nelkys Casabona, a member of the 2012 Cuban national track and field team, who watched the races.
“We spoke for an hour and then had lunch together,” Barowski said. “We exchanged mailing addresses and email. She was really adamant about continuing to communicate. She said ‘If you come back you are staying at my house.’ We actually exchanged T-shirts. She gave me a Cuba national track team T-shirt. I felt bad. I gave her one of my ratty Princeton track shirts.”
“I was a little bit hesitant about how we would be received,” said Jack Scinto, a Princeton jumper. “We thought that we would be greeted with distaste. They were excited that we were there though. The immediate sense was that the general population was excited about the new relations (between the U.S. and Cuba).”
Princeton’s track team learned in September 2014 they would be heading to Cuba, a country the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with for a generation.
“Right after coach said we were going to Cuba he followed it up with ‘Don’t worry, we will be staying in nice places. It will be enjoyable. No one should be apprehensive about where we are going,’” Barowski said. “That struck me. But after reading into their political history, my thinking turned into what a great chance this is to go during such a transitional period.”
Princeton’s trip was arranged by the non-profit group Global Exchange, which issued the entire team a U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control license, giving them authorization to travel to Cuba.
“Licenses are provided if the purpose of the travel is within certain categories,” said Global Exchange’s Cuba Tour Director Leslie Balog. “The license we provided (Princeton) with was a people-to-people license. In that we set the entire trip up we knew the names of the people they would be interacting with. The license could have been in the sports competition or educational category as well.”
Princeton’s education continued off the track, where the Tigers participated in a lot of dancing. They attended an outdoor opera as well as a block party, were called up on stage during an Afro-Cuban dance performance and took a salsa dance class.
“All of us with two left feet walking over each other; that was memorable” Scinto said. “(The teachers) were laughing. They asked us to play American music. I (connected) my phone to the speakers and we had a dance circle, showing them how Americans dance.”
When that happens, there are no language or cultural barriers.