Cuba will allow athletes to keep most of their winnings
Cuba's delegation marches during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony on Aug. 8, 2008 at the National Stadium in Beijing. [AFP]

Athletes in Cuba for the first time will be allowed to keep most of their overseas prize money, Havana said Friday, in a major policy shift intended to encourage would-be defectors to stay.

The government announced in the daily Granma newspaper that Cuban athletes -- who in the past were allowed to keep only about 15 percent of their prize overseas prize winnings -- as of next year will be allowed to keep 80 percent.

The move is one of several policy changes affecting athletes' pay in Cuba, a former Olympic powerhouse which in recent years has lost some of its athletic luster, as disaffected sports stars flee to countries where they can make more money.

Athletes also for the first time will be allowed to sign with foreign clubs, where the level of competition and the remuneration can be considerably higher.

This would open the door for Cuba's baseball players -- regarded as among the best in the world -- to reap big paydays in professional leagues overseas.

The change is an abrupt break with past policies that forbade Cuba's athletes to compete for contracts with foreign clubs, and viewed the prize purses they earned at foreign competition as incompatible with the Caribbean nation's communist ideals.

Granma wrote that the new salary changes were approved about a week ago by Cuba's Council of Ministers.

The pay increases -- still strikingly low by international standards -- were announced as Cuba attempts to regain its competitive edge on the playing field, the Granma newspaper wrote.

Included in the announced changes is a modest increase in pay for all athletes, and performance bonus for those who distinguish themselves. Coaches and trainers would also benefit from the salary raises.

The Havana government hopes "to perfect sports, generate sources of income, improve the quality and rigor of competitions and gradually increase the pay (for athletes) in such a way that each is compensated for his work," the daily wrote.

Athletic prowess -- from track and field to boxing -- was once the pride of Cuba's vaunted Revolution. The island of just 11 million people was the sports powerhouse of Latin America.

But in recent years, the communist island has had less success in international sports, in part because of the meager financial rewards athletes here glean for their endeavors compared to other countries.

Low pay for athletes has been a major reason for defections by some of this country's most talented sports stars, as well as up-and-coming talent.

The new government guidelines sets a "monthly basic incomes" for athletes, establishing "six categories for sports performance and achievement."

The winner of an Olympic medal, for example, would earn 1,500 pesos per month ($62 on official exchange rates). A gold medalist at a world championship would garner 1,300 pesos($54).

Gold at the Pan American Games would earn 1200 pesos ($50). Being crowned Central American champion earns 1100 pesos ($46).

The new pay structure for the most part goes into effect next year, but already will affect salaries and purses to be paid to ball players in national championship games to be held this November.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]