Listen to this article
Odlanier Solís never expected his Olympic boxing career to begin and end with heavyweight gold in Athens in 2004. But then plenty of things have happened to the 32-year-old Cuban native that he never expected.
On peak form, he had been looking forward to the 2000 Games, but his hopes were crushed when Cuban legend Felix Savón, whom he had beaten twice, was picked instead. “I didn’t agree, but as a sportsman I had to understand,” says Solís sparsely. “These things happen in life.” When he did finally get to the Olympics, he was a man on a mission. “I had already won all the [amateur] titles – I just needed this one,” says the man dubbed La Sombra (The Shadow) for his speed and agility, despite his size.
“I’ll never forget, when I won gold, a doctor on the Cuban team told me: ‘Being Olympic champion is practically impossible’,” he recalls by telephone from Texas, where he recently won a heavyweight contest in his first bout in more than a year. “It was miraculous.” Though he had already been abroad several times, taking gold in the Games that returned to their historic roots was “something unique”.
The newly crowned Olympic champion returned to Havana to a hero’s welcome, a successor to Savón. “I never thought I wouldn’t repeat [the Olympics],” he says. But his life took another turn. In December 2006, while training in Venezuela, he defected with two team mates. He says the decision was triggered by news the team would not be paid daily expenses, leaving them with no cash to take home to Cuba. “We would be treated like kitchen rags,” he says.
For such a momentous decision, it was not premeditated. Becoming professional had not been in his plans. “I’ve always done things spontaneously,” Solís says. Turning his back on people, and a country he loved and had never thought of leaving, was a radical decision for a man who says family is the “fundamental thing in life”. But he says: “I had two solutions and I had to take a decision, which I still don’t regret.” To him, that meant quitting his homeland or ending up “like almost all athletes in Cuba, sitting on a street corner, forgetting the past”.
He’ll be watching the London Olympics from his home in Miami, with his wife and their two young boys; his other son is back in Cuba and though he cannot see him, “my life has changed, economically, for the better, so even if I don’t go, I can give more support,” he says.
“Cuba is a country with many sporting triumphs, but it is also true that, economically, the standard of living is not what you would like,” he adds. Though he never had to sell his Olympic gold to support his family, like fellow defector and champion Yuriorkis Gamboa, he certainly would have done if needed. “Your triumph, your victory – the whole world knows that. A medal means a lot, but a son, a mother or a brother has more value,” he says.
His own Olympic gold is in his brother’s house in Havana, along with all his trophies. “If I had the chance to go there, what I’d like to do is to count them. I don’t remember how many there are,” says Solís, whose goal is now to be crowned world professional heavyweight champion. But he is sanguine about leaving it all behind: “There are things you achieve at a certain time and then life moves on, and you achieve other things… that can be as good or better.”
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published