Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and this week we look at the Cuban women's volleyball team that won three Olympic golds and two World Championships in less than a decade.
How it started
The Cuban women’s volleyball team had already delighted their fans on their Olympic debut with a sixth-place finish at Munich 1972. They then finished in the same position at the next two Olympics, but the true golden age of Cuban volleyball began in 1978 when they won the World Championship.
The world was amazed by the charisma of the team and they were nicknamed ‘The Caribbean Girls’ (Las Morenas del Caribe).
Following that glorious moment, the Cuban government sponsored the team, which by now was on the path to greatness.
However, as Cuba did not send any athletes to the 1984 and 1988 Olympics Games, their true age of dominance would not begin until Barcelona 1992.
The biggest wins
On the court, the team played aggressively and showed strong character. But most importantly, they hated losing. It was the perfect combination of characteristics required to create the incredible team that went on to win three Olympic gold medals in a row.
"Our motivation for winning was our country. Cubans love sports and our victories brought joy to our people," said Regla Torres, a member of The Caribbean Girls, when looking back on the astonishing feat.
Hoping to be the pride of the nation, the team landed in Barcelona in 1992 with a strong will to win. No other result even entered their mind.
And they fulfilled every expectation, winning the tournament without losing a match, including a four-set final against the United States.
Following their victory in Barcelona, Cuba were the dominant force in women’s volleyball, winning gold medals at the World Championship (1994) and World Cup (1995).
And so they travelled to the next Olympics in Atlanta as the team to beat. The team had the same nucleus as the one that triumphed in Barcelona but with more maturity.
However, things did not start as smoothly as Cuba may have hoped, as they succumbed to both the Russian Federation and Brazil in the group stage.
But they were to have their revenge.
In the semi-final, their rivals were once again Brazil, but the match played out like a final. "That match became more important than the final. Twenty years later, people still talk about it. It was a very tough match because the teams were so close," remembered Regla Torres.
But in the end, Cuba prevailed, setting up a final against the People’s Republic of China. And their opponents failed to end the love affair between The Caribbean Girls and the Olympic gold medal.
Cuba’s national volleyball team dominated the sport in the last decade of the 20th century and became a symbol of Cuban women.
Once again, Cuba continued to beat every team they came up against on their journey to the next Olympics. Following Atlanta, the national team won the 1998 World Championship and the 1999 World Cup.
However, Sydney 2000 would not be a walk in the park for Cuba.
In the final, they began the match by losing the first two sets against the Russian Federation. But The Caribbean Girls would not be beaten, as history awaited them. After winning an unprecedented third gold medal, they were re-nicknamed The Spectacular Caribbean Girls, because everything they achieved was so spectacular.
The key players
"I came to know each one of them so deeply. I dreamt of them. I cried and laughed with them. There are no words to describe everything I felt as captain of that team,” says Mireya Luis, remarking that they were a family and all of the members of the team were important.
However, Luis was also one of the most outstanding players. Even today, the captain of The Caribbean Girls is considered to be one of the greatest offensive players ever.
Luis is one of eight players to have competed in all three of the golden Games. Alongside her were Ana Ibis Fernández, Idalmis Gato, Lily Izquierdo, Marlenis Costa, Regla Torres, Regla Bell and Raisa O’ Farril.
Regla Torres was another key player for Cuba. With incredible offensive and blocking skills, she was the perfect player on the court. In 2001, the FIVB named her the best volleyball player of the 20th century.
Another member of the group received a similar award. Eugenio George was named best coach of the 20th century having managed the team at Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, alongside assistant coach Ñico Perdomo.
George passed away in 2014, following a long illness. Nicknamed ‘The Professor’, he is considered the trailblazer responsible for developing volleyball in Cuba and his legacy will never be forgotten.
2000 Getty Images
The Caribbean girls became the symbol of Cuban strength, and also women’s empowerment. "We became role models as women and as a team," said Marlenis Costa, a three-time Olympic champion.
This power could be seen in how fierce they were on the court, as they made it clear to their opponents that they would be victorious, as if there were no other option and no rival was strong enough to defeat them. And Cuba continue to attempt to pass this fighting spirit to the younger generations.
However, since that time, Cuba’s women’s national team have never been the same.
Although they went on to win the bronze medal at Athens 2004, they haven't won an Olympic medal since and they failed to even qualify for London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
But even though their legacy is no longer reflected on the Olympic stage, the influence they have is intangible. The Spectacular Caribbean Girls will live forever in the history of the Olympics.
"That team, The Caribbean Girls, should live in the hearts of all those who love volleyball. We just want to be remembered as The Caribbean Girls - as the great champions we became."