During Opening Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, former Cuban sports heroes Teofilo Stevenson, Javier Sotomayor and Ana Fidelia Quirot sat together inside Bird's Nest Stadium.
When the Cuban team marched onto the track, the three stars sprung to their feet and joined in the roar from the crowd, one of the loudest for any team in the parade of nations.
''I felt the excitement when the U.S. and Chinese teams marched in, but it was also electrifying to see this little island nation receive such respect and enthusiasm,'' said Jose Rodriguez, who sat with Stevenson, Sotomayor and Quirot. Rodriguez is executive director of USA Judo, a Miamian and a native of Cuba.
But the respect accorded Cuba wasn't matched by its performance in Beijing. Cuba had its worst Olympic showing in 40 years, winning only two gold medals and finishing 28th in the medal standings. Cuba is accustomed to being in the Top 10.
Cuba did not win a single gold in boxing. The baseball team lost the gold medal game to South Korea, and the women's volleyball team was upset by the United States.
The decline of Cuba as a sports power is a reflection of the dilapidated state of the island and the infirm Fidel Castro 50 years after his revolution. Sports continues to limp along despite the fading health of its No. 1 fan and shrinking budgets dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Riddled by defections, Cuba has nonetheless remained competitive on the world stage. But its success rate, which was so disproportionate to its size during Castro's heyday, is no longer the strong morale-boosting propaganda tool that it was.
''The Beijing Olympics were an embarrassment for Cuba,'' said Roberto Quesada, a former trainer for the Cuban boxing team now coaching in Miami. ``That could mark the beginning of the end. I don't know if they can recover in these difficult economic times.''
The Games concluded with a humiliating incident for Cuba when tae kwon do athlete Angel Matos was disqualified during his match, kicked the referee in the face, spat on the mat and was banned from the sport.
Castro defended Matos, saying the match was fixed. He said boxers were ''condemned beforehand'' and cheated by judges.
In the same essay, Castro wrote that defections have hurt and blamed ''the repugnant mercenary actions'' of pro boxing promoters.
He promised a reassessment of ``every discipline, every human and material resource that we dedicate to sport.''
''Cuba has never bought an athlete or judge,'' Castro wrote, adding that Cubans need to brace themselves for the 2012 London Games. ``There will be European chauvinism, judge corruption, buying of brawn and brains and a strong dose of racism.''
Castro handed the presidency to brother Raúl in February but retains influence in deciding priorities. The few photos of Castro that are published give a clue to where the heart of the old sports nut still lies: He's wearing a red, white and blue Adidas track suit.
Castro was such a baseball aficionado he used to show up at practices and dictate the starting lineup. Successor Raúl may not be as obsessed, but Vice President Jose Ramon ''El Gallego'' Fernandez, a staunch friend of Fidel who defeated invaders at the Bay of Pigs, is head of Cuba's Olympic Committee, ensuring a pro-sports voice.
Alberto ''El Caballo'' Juantorena, track star of the 1976 Games, is senior vice president of INDER, the Cuban sports ministry. He is a charismatic figure, hugely popular.
Baseball still draws large crowds. The season started in early December and is on hiatus during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the revolution. The season will also take a break during the World Baseball Classic in March, when Cuba's national team will go for the title three years after finishing second.
As for Cuba's newly formatted two-division league, there is lots of talk about pitcher Yulieski Gonzalez, 15-0 last year, sluggers Alexei Bell and Donald Duarte and rookie Yasel Puig. German Mesa is the new manager of Industriales, and Victor Mesa is out as manager of Villa Clara. Can Pedro Lazo extend his career victories total toward 250?
There are also wistful whispers about the ones who got away, such as Alexei ''the Cuban Missile'' Ramirez, who defected and signed with the Chicago White Sox. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year. Up and coming Dayan Viciedo defected to Miami and was signed by the White Sox last month.
Since pitcher Rene Arocha defected in Miami in 1991, about 100 baseball players have fled Cuba. Their exodus shows that, in some ways, Castro's Big Red Machine has been a victim of its own success.
Before Castro took over, Cuban baseball players joined U.S. teams. In the 1950s, the Havana Sugar Kings were a Triple A International League franchise. Cuba was also home to boxing stars.
But Castro outlawed ''corrupt and exploitative'' professional sports in 1961 and created the national sports program, which was modeled on the Soviet system. Voluntary sports councils (CDVs) were set up in towns along with a pyramid of sports schools (EIDEs, ESPAs and CEARs) to identify and develop talent. Castro's goal was to win international legitimacy and domestic pride.
He promoted masividad -- mass participation -- to enhance the health of workers. He eliminated country clubs and admission charges. Sport became ''a right of the people'' delineated in the constitution.
A breakthrough came in 1966, when Cuban athletes -- forbidden by the U.S. to travel by plane -- came to San Juan, Puerto Rico, by boat and won 78 medals at the Central American and Caribbean Games. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Cuba finished fifth in the medal count.
It's been downhill since. In 1991, Cuba lost its Soviet subsidies and began the Special Period of scarcity.
Cuba has found new sources of income by renting out coaches and trainers, allowing athletes to sign endorsement contracts overseas and selling equipment. Athletes remain amateur; experts get paid. For example, Cuban computer technicians ran some operations during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena, Colombia.
''Can Cuban sports be saved by capitalism?'' author Paula Pettavino asked. ``That remains to be seen.''
Rising sports salaries, the influence of the Internet, the success of a few Cuban athletes and deteriorating conditions at home have spurred defections. Fewer athletes espouse the patriotism of track star Quirot, who dedicated medals to her commandante en jefe or boxer Felix Savon, who proclaimed he preferred the hearts of 10 million countrymen to the riches of 10 million dollars.
All Cubans know the remarkable story of Orlando ''El Duque'' Hernandez, the pitcher who left by boat, got stranded on Anguilla Cay, signed for millions with none other than the New York Yanquis, then played in the World Series nine months later. His agent was Miami's Joe Cubas, once known for his Cuban pipeline.
Seven members of the Under-23 soccer team fled from a Tampa hotel in March. Two players left the national team when it played the United States in Washington, D.C., two months ago.
When the Cuban judo team competed in Miami in May, two-time world champion Yurisel Laborde defected.
In 2006, three 2004 Olympic boxing champions sold their medals, then left a training camp in Venezuela. Another champ was kicked off the team after trying to defect in 2007. And a world champion left Cuba by speedboat in May. They signed pro contracts with a German promoter.
Yet Cuba still produces athletes other nations envy.
''We've never seen in the U.S. the talent level Cuba has had since 1962,'' said Milton Jamail, international player relations consultant for the Tampa Bay Rays and a former University of Texas professor who wrote Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball. ``They produce too many players to have a 30-man team and contain them. Some need to leave or they would never replenish.
``I think it's amazing for all the travel they do that they don't have more defections. There will always be that tension, and they know they cannot avoid some losses.''
When Viciedo held a tryout in the Dominican Republic, 100 Major League scouts showed up to watch him.
''Baseball is still great -- it's recovered from a slump in the mid 1990s -- and the Cuban people still adore it,'' Jamail said.
Rodriguez took the U.S. judo team to tournaments in Havana in May. It was his 14th trip to Cuba since 1985. The Americans weren't treated as lavishly as in the past, when they were feted at the Tropicana.
''The government used to spend a lot of money, but now they have to focus every penny on their athletes, who also don't live as well as they used to,'' Rodriguez said. ``They are really struggling, but still compete at a higher level than most countries.''
Rodriguez said his athletes came home impressed by Cuban athletes' workouts on the beach, in which they used the water and sand to invent grueling drills.
''Cubans may not have the material things, but they have the desire,'' he said. ``I don't see the gloom and doom or agree with the theory that Beijing marked the end for Cuban sports. The infrastructure is still there, the expertise is still there and, most importantly, the talent is still there.''
Rodriguez coaxed the Cuban judo team to Miami after decades of ill will. The team got an enthusiastic reception. Two U.S. coaches who used to be stars for Cuba even went out on the town with their former comrades.
What does the future hold? There is hope that with two new presidents -- Barack Obama and Raúl Castro -- relations could warm. Maybe they'll even use some form of ''ping-pong diplomacy'' -- a series of games or training camps in the U.S. and on the island.
''I foresee coaching exchanges, the Pan Am Games in Miami and U.S. vs. Cuba in baseball,'' Rodriguez said.
Eventually, might Cuba allow select athletes to sign pro contracts here?
Quesada says no. ''Raúl will never cross that line,'' he said. ``There will be no pros fighting for money as long as any Castro is in power.''
Jamail foresees Major League teams opening academies on the island, as 29 teams have in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Venezuela.
He would also like to see all of Cuba's stars -- inside and outside Cuba -- representing the country in the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics, if baseball is reinstated to the Olympics.
''I always feel silly talking about what's going to happen in Cuba because, who knows?'' Jamail said. ``Who could predict Fidel would still be around 50 years later?''