The protests over the lack of food and other basic human needs that took place across Cuba last month also have a lot to do with the story of Wilfredo León, the latest and possibly greatest Cuban sporting export, one more star athlete his nation has lost to the riches of modern sports
By Matthew Futterman
Published: Aug 2, 2021
Poland's Wilfredo Leon Venero (L) hits the ball in the men's preliminary round pool A volleyball match between Poland and Italy during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Yuri Cortez / AFP)
TOKYO — There are roughly 11,000 athletes at the Olympics here, each with a story. Here is one of them, about the world’s greatest volleyball player.
He is an adopted son of Poland, born 28 years ago in Cuba. If that sounds curious, here is a hint about the explanation: The protests over the lack of food and other basic human needs that took place across Cuba last month also have a lot to do with the story of Wilfredo León, the latest and possibly greatest Cuban sporting export, one more star athlete his nation has lost to the riches of modern sports.
“In Cuba, they tell you when you are growing up that all the great champions of the past have suffered through these conditions, that the suffering will help you become the best,” León said from his Warsaw home as he prepared to travel to Tokyo. “It is not true. To give your best you need good facilities, a nice place where you can rest, good food, doctors. That is the only way you can have a long sporting life.”
León, the star outside hitter for his professional team in Italy and more recently for Poland, has long been considered one of the top volleyball players in the world. But this is the first time he is competing for his adopted homeland at an Olympics, because of the protracted processes he had to endure: first, to get permission to leave Cuba and then to become eligible to represent Poland at the Games.
His presence on its national team has made Poland a gold medal contender, and it went 4-1 in preliminary-round play in no small part because of León.
At 6-foot-8, he elevates so high and so quickly that it can look as if his knees are level with the bottom of the net. He also has the rare ability to use his jump-serve as an offensive weapon: In his first Olympic matches, León’s serve kept knocking to the floor opponents who tried to defend it.
He is always lurking, then suddenly flying from the back or side of the court to finish off a point. He is impossible to ignore, but overplaying can be perilous, because he is also the ultimate decoy. During a tight third set against Japan last week, with the score tied at 24 and Poland looking to close out the match, three Japanese players drifted over to prepare to defend León, only to watch the ball go to his teammate, Bartosz Kurek, who spiked the ball into the open court. A point later, the match was over.
León is one in a long string of Cuban volleyball greats who have abandoned their homeland. Most leave to seek not only the riches of a professional career, but also, perhaps, a national team program that has the resources to house its developing stars in dormitories without leaky roofs, an organization that can provide consistent running water and standard medical treatment when injuries occur.
León said that when he began playing with Cuba’s junior national team, there were 10 players around his age who were nearly as good as he was. After two years, eight of them had quit. Other Cuban stars, who could have made up a seriously impressive Cuban national team, are now scattered across the globe, including Yoandy Leal, who plays for Brazil, and Osmany Juantorena and Angel Dennis, who represent Italy.
Similar to other Cuban stars, León said he had multiple citizenship offers after he left the island nation in 2014, with some including a significant amount of money. He chose Poland mainly because he had a Polish girlfriend, Malgorzata León, who is now his wife and the mother of his two children, and because Poland loves volleyball.
“I was not interested in using my private life as a business plan,” he said. “You must choose a country because you love a country.”
Volleyball, though, was his first love, ever since his parents signed him up for a recreational program to keep him off the dangerous streets of Santiago de Cuba. By 11, León was playing in tournaments abroad for the junior national team.
He was also living for long stretches on the top floor of a dormitory where rain poured through the ceiling and he had to lug two buckets of water from a nearby well up four flights of stairs to bathe or do his laundry.
By 14, León had sprouted to 6-foot-4 and was asked to begin training with the senior team. Conditions were somewhat better after that, he said, but not much. He had already competed in Mexico City, where he saw restaurants and stores teeming with food and clothing, and knew a better life might be within his reach.
In 2011, a teammate who owed a favor to a Polish journalist asked León to give her an interview. That interview, conducted online, led to a few more media interviews with the same reporter and then to a meeting at the World League tournament in Gdansk, in northern Poland.
“After four days spent together, we knew there was a special bond between us,” said Malgorzata León, who was the reporter.
Wilfredo and Malgorzata tried to keep in touch over the internet, but Cuba’s spotty Wi-Fi network made that difficult. They met up at a few more international tournaments in 2012 but struggled to maintain contact.
The breaking point for León came after the World League tournament that year, where he saw Malgorzata and, on a severely sprained ankle, helped his team to a bronze medal. When he was back in Cuba, he was forced into 45 days of military training, marching and crawling through the mud of the forest with little food.
In 2013, he told Cuban officials he would no longer play for the national team and asked for permission to move abroad. It took a year, until early 2014, for the government to give him his passport so that he could travel to Poland. He played no volleyball for nearly 18 months, then signed on with clubs in Russia and Qatar during the next three years before joining Sir Safety Perugia, one of the top teams in Italy, in 2018.
It wasn’t until 2019 that he became eligible to play for Poland’s national team and to represent a country of roughly 38 million people whose populace is overwhelmingly white. It has just a few thousand Black residents.
León says his adopted home has embraced him. Now he wants nothing more than to bring it a gold medal, building his legacy in the game he loves.
Poland has not won the Olympic gold medal in volleyball, or even reached the gold medal match, since 1976, but its people have long loved the game. It is arguably the second most-popular sport in Poland, behind soccer. León, who chose Poland as his home nation in part because of that culture, has elevated the sport to another level.
Kevin Barnett, a two-time Olympian and volleyball commentator for NBC Sports, said his former teammate Vital Heynen, who now coaches Poland’s national team, told him that he no longer had to battle basketball for the country’s best big athletes. “They’re all choosing volleyball,” Barnett said.
Despite the team's loss in the opening match, Heynen said it was rounding into form.
“Eight perfect matches is too much for anyone,” Heynen said after Poland’s victory over Japan in pool play. “What is most important is to see things are getting better. We are starting to have that Olympic fire.”