It was the summer of 2003 and then sports minister Giorgos Lianis was showing his Cuban counterpart around Florina in northern Greece as part of a visit aimed at a bilateral sports agreement. It was then that the Cuban official first conveyed a request by his leader: “El Comandante would like to come to Greece for the Olympic Games.” The official explained that Fidel Castro was a fervent admirer of Greece’s culture and history.
Castro’s request was received with trepidation both by the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee and the Greek government. In a bid to buy some time to consider the request, spokesman Christos Protopappas told journalists that it was still too early to respond as the list of invitations for heads of state had not yet been drawn up.
A few months later, Patriarch Vartholomaios was received in Havana with all the honors of a head of state for the inauguration of the Greek Orthodox Church of Aghios Nikolaos in the Cuban capital. The ceremony was also attended by former Greek king Constantine, who had helped build the church. His presence caused waves in Greece after high-ranking Cuban officials in the Greek Metropolitan Church were heard referring to him as “your majesty.” The organizers of the event told Greek journalists that the invitation to Constantine had been issued because of his ties with the Spanish royal family but mainly because of his position with the International Olympic Committee.
At the press conference for the church’s inauguration, Castro joked with the former monarch and reminded him of the last time they had met, when the Cuban leader has given the ex-king a package of Cuban cigars with a note that he asked to be delivered to composer Mikis Theodorakis. Castro also used the occasion to complain that he had not been granted a visa to visit Greece for the Games.
The decision not to send an official invitation had been taken by the Foreign Ministry, in line with a European Union embargo on diplomatic ties with Cuba, resulting from human rights violations that had all but stopped high-level bilateral visits to the country.
In August 2004, Cuba sent 151 athletes to the Games. Their first move on arriving at the Olympic Village was to hang huge posters of Castro and Che Guevara on the front of the building where they were staying. Fidel Castro may not have made it to Athens, but his son Antonio did, as an orthopedic surgeon for the national baseball team. He told the media that he was eager to get to know Greece but was saddened that his father never received the much coveted invitation to attend.
The last time Castro had attended an Olympic Games was in 1992 and the security surrounding his arrival in Barcelona was reminiscent of the Cold War: Without announcing a time of arrival, two Cuban airplanes landed at a local airport shortly after midnight and no one knew which was carrying Castro. A few hours later, at the opening ceremony, the Cuban president was applauding his country’s squad after 12 years in the Olympic cold.
Castro had always been passionate about sports, something he often expressed with angry outbursts, paranoia and plenty of conspiracy theories, such as a three-hour rant on TV in 1999 against the “conspiracy” that implicated Cuban athletes in a doping scandal at the Pan American Games. Many years later he did the same in regard to the Beijing Games, claiming that an “anti-Cuban” racket was hard at work ensuring that Cuban athletes would not earn any distinctions.
One story that is not so well known to the public concerns how baseball helped Cuban-American ties and how the person responsible for this overture was a Greek-American: Peter Angelos, a lawyer and owner of the Baltimore Orioles, whose parents were from Karpathos. Angelos was set on seeing his team play in Havana and had tried to break the embargo in 1992 but failed. When US President Bill Clinton loosened restrictions on relations with Cuba, Angelos made another push. The matter went all the way to the US Senate, where it was green-lighted, paving the way for a US baseball team to travel to Cuba after 37 years, in May 1999. Angelos had visited Havana earlier to convince Castro to allow the Cuban national team to travel to America. Castro agreed but, in order to avoid defections, kept the team on a very tight leash. Nevertheless, one veteran player managed to slip away and never returned to Havana.