By Nick Harris
SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year
21 August 2011
THROUGH the darkest night of Yamilé Aldama’s life, she lay awake with her eight-month-old son next to her, a candle on the table beside them – and with no idea what the future held.
Earlier that day, 13 June 2002, she’d been at home in London with her husband, Andrew, who she’d met in her native Cuba two years before. Unexpected visitors arrived.
The couple had first got to know each other when he was taking a Spanish course at university in Havana. He was in his 30s, in property. She was a triple jumper, then 28, just back from the Sydney Olympics where she finished fourth.
They fell in love, married in 2001, had a baby, and moved to England.
‘The police came that day, and he was gone,’ Aldama recalled last week as we sat in a room at Copthall Stadium in Hendon, talking about events that have shaped a long career still taking unprecedented turns.
Later this month she will become, at 39, the oldest person to make a debut for the GB athletics team, at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Despite having a second son just 11 months ago, and missing most of a year’s training, Aldama is the best female triple jumper in Britain.
Almost certainly she will represent Britain at next year’s Olympics. But her journey has been anything but a hop, skip and jump.
Unknown to Aldama in 2002, her husband had been a cog in a major drugs trafficking ring three years earlier. In 1999, a 108kg stash of Class A drugs was found in a warehouse he rented.
He’d been on the run since and it took until 2002 for an investigation to prove his involvement – via a fingerprint on a delivery docket – and then find him.
Speaking quietly, the memory still unbelievable, Aldama adds: ‘I knew nothing about what he’d done before we met. I just lay with my baby thinking “What is going to happen to us”?’
If this thread of Aldama’s life is extraordinary, then the full tapestry is more remarkable still – a tale of childhood induction into Cuba’s communist sports programme, then the rise to being a podium-chasing Cuban Olympian, then exile, turmoil, loss.
‘Growing up in Cuba was great,’ she says. ‘I was surrounded by my friends, the weather is great, I came from a normal family, working class and I guess poor but we never went without food or anything.’
Aldama was one of seven children. Her father Ramon is a truck driver and her mother Modesta works in a state factory that manufactures underwear.
The national sports and recreation programme as dictated by Fidel Castro’s regime identifies potential athletes at a young age and then provides them with everything they need to fulfill their potential. They become privileged within society – but at a cost to some of their freedoms later. Prize money, for example, is routinely confiscated and then only a small proportion of it returned.
Aldama was first spotted by the programme for an aptitude at chess. ‘But I was hyperactive and I switched to volleyball. You moved up through the system and they take care of your schooling and then university, housing, food. I switched to hurdles, then high jump, and settled with triple jump by 14 years old.’
By leaving Cuba in 2001, Aldama was treated as a defector. ‘When you’re there, you’re special,’ she says. ‘But they want to control you, how you train, everything. If you leave to live elsewhere, they do not allow you to represent Cuba at an Olympics or world championships.’
So she sought a British passport. She was married to a Briton, after all, with a British son, and a future in Britain. She was climbing the world rankings under a British coach, Frank Attoh, competing for a local club, Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers.
But the fallout from her husband’s arrest was devastating. At his trial in 2003, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Nobody disputes his guilt. Under proceeds of crime legislation, his assets were seized, leaving Aldama and their child to find a new home.
‘Some of my friends said I should go back to Cuba,’ Aldama says. ‘They said it could be impossible to survive alone with a child. I said “Nothing’s impossible”.’
Her coach and his family supported her, including financially. ‘We picked Yami up,’ Attoh says.
‘I just wanted to compete,’ Aldama herself adds. Compete she did.
Despite the great uncertainty in her life, she jumped 15.29 metres at a meeting in Rome in summer 2003 to reach the world No1 ranking. That mark remains her best – and is still, as of mid-August 2011, the record across North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Athens Olympics were a year away. Aldama wanted to compete for Britain. A passport would be automatic in November 2004, after three years’ residency, but Aldama hoped her case could be expedited, albeit by a few months.
There were precedents: most notably Zola Budd was naturalised inside 13 days in 1984 to become an instant British medal prospect at the Los Angeles Games.
‘The whole of 2003 we were trying,’ Aldama says. She was supported by Charles van Commenee, then the jumps coach of the British team and now the head coach. There was a personal appeal to David Blunkett, the home secretary.
‘My priority was to represent Great Britain and given the chance I would have done that,’ she says. ‘I tried everything I could and the answer was no.’
The official line was that the three-year rule was insurmountable – even though it had been ignored in other cases. Aldama believes her husband’s crime influenced the process, the Home Office dodging a possible PR headache at the Athens Games.
Both Aldama and Attoh also think they were followed by drugs squad officers in the period after her husband’s arrest. ‘I assumed they suspected us,’ Attoh says. ‘Of course we weren’t involved. They were just doing their job.’
Aldama was 31 and uncertain of how many more Olympics she might make. Her agent looked at other options. ‘I was feeling so well, so fit and in form, but someone just didn’t want me to compete for Britain in Athens,’ Aldama says.
The Sudanese government were fast-tracking passports for talented athletes from anywhere else – importing podium chances, in effect. Thus Aldama went to Athens for Sudan, finishing fifth. She competed for Sudan at numerous events, up until March 2010.
There was no requirement to live in Sudan, or even visit, although she went to Khartoum three times for PR assignments and school talks. She wasn’t representing Sudan for money. ‘It’s a poor country,’ she says, adding financial assistance was ‘in the hundreds not thousands’ of dollars per year – and that for physio.
Life moved on. Through years of confusion and doubt, her marriage has, astonishingly, survived. ‘The man I met and married was a good father, a good husband,’ she says. ‘Nothing he did while we were together [before the arrest] made me think he wasn’t a good man. It wasn’t right to leave him when he needed me most. If you love someone, it doesn’t go away in a day.’
Her husband served seven-and-a-half years before release on licence in late 2009. He now works as a solar panel salesman.
Aldama could have had a British passport from late 2004 but waited until her husband’s post-sentence fate was sure, finally getting it in 2010.
So why didn’t Aldama go to the Athens Games for Sudan and then dump them and take up the offer of a British passport? ‘I wouldn’t have done that after they had given me the chance to compete, that would not have been fair on them,’ she says.
In any case, she was never certain how many – if any – major events, namely world or Olympics events, she might be involved in again.
London 2012 is an event she is attracted to as a Londoner. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I have lived here for 10 years.’
But the process to represent Team GB didn’t actually happen until a few weeks ago. Frank Attoh says it was at his suggestion Aldama considered the move. ‘I was watching the AAAs in Birmingham and the British triple-jumpers otherwise available cannot offer what Yami can,’ he said. ‘None of them have jumped over 14 metres, let alone qualifying standard.
‘I said to Yami she could bring something to the team, and maybe be an inspiration to the next generation.’
A whirlwind of activity followed. Aldama called the Sudanese federation to ask what they thought. The IAAF rules say an athlete can unilaterally change nationality – in competition terms – if they have not competed for three years for anyone else. And they can switch after one year’s break if all parties agree.
For Aldama, who last competed for Sudan in early 2010, this meant their permission was all she needed to make herself available for Team GB. The passport had already been obtained.
‘I didn’t want to be on bad terms with them,’ she said. ‘ I made the call, only on 2 August. ‘I explained to them I’m in the last year and a half of my career. I live here and have done for 10 years. My husband is British. My kids are British. They know all this anyway, they understood. They informed the IAAF. They released me.’
Attoh rejects the notion Aldama is a ‘plastic Brit’, the in-vogue term for athletes not good enough to make their own teams, but here as British aspirant Olympians. ‘She’s lived here 10 years, wanting to represent Britain,’ he says. ‘She’s not just arrived from America or Jamaica like some of them.’
Aldama says: ‘I understand people’s point of view if they want to criticise. But I have a point of view. I wanted to represent Britain. It wasn’t possible but I wanted to compete at the top.
‘Getting picked for the British team now is destiny. I tried to achieve this as soon as I came here and it didn’t happen. I can’t expect too much in Daegu, but I want to win a medal for Britain at the Olympics.
‘You might think I’m crazy but that’s what I believe I can do.’
This is an extended, interactive version of a feature that first appeared this morning, Sunday 21 August, in the sports pages of Mail on Sunday LINKED HERE.