By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban athletes are preparing to leave for Tokyo and the Olympic Games, with fans ready to cheer them on, disappointed that the national sport of baseball did not make the cut but eager to watch their boxers, wrestlers and others compete.
The Summer Games, scheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8, are frequently a source of local pride as the Communist-run Caribbean island of 11.2 million people tends to do well. Local authorities say they hope to place within the top 20 medal winners.
Five years ago, in the 2016 edition in Rio de Janeiro, Cuba won five gold medals, two silver and four bronze, ranking 18th among more than 200 nations.
Cubans are bitter that their baseball team failed to qualify after losing its top talent to the major leagues in recent years. It was the star of each Olympic delegation after winning gold in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Athens 2004, as well as silver in Sydney in 2000 and Beijing 2008, the last time the sport was included in the Games until now.
"The absence of baseball leaves a thorn in the throat. It is a fact that has been making our country suffer a lot," said Carlos Tabares, 46, a former national team player and Olympic champion.
The Cuban delegation of 69 athletes from 14 disciplines will be led by Greco-Roman wrestler Mijain Lopez, three-time gold medal winner in the 130 kg category who at 38 is seeking his fourth successive Olympic gold, while boxers Julio Cesar La Cruz (91 kgs) and Arlen Lopez (81 kgs) focus on winning their second crowns.
"I had to focus to get to the Olympic Games again, just as I did last year,” after the games were postponed due to the pandemic, Lopez told state-run television.
“This (gold) medal would be a great merit for me to achieve, an important record in my sports career," he said, as he would be the first wrestler to win four consecutive gold medals.
All eyes will surely be on Lopez but also on the boxing team, which has won 37 gold medals since the 1972 Munich Games.
Cuban boxers won three gold medals and three bronze in Rio 2016. The seven fighters classified for Tokyo together hold six world titles and include three Olympians: Roniel Iglesias (2012), La Cruz (2016) and Arlen López (2016).
Cuba has other medal options in athletics, with world champions Yaime Perez in the discus event and long jumper Juan Miguel Echevarria among others. The latter reached 8.39 metres in Spain last week, his best mark in the current season.
The Cubans will also be watching their compatriots with good odds of winning medals in judo, shooting, taekwondo and boating.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Marc Frank; Editing by Hugh Lawson)