Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sylvio Cator: Haitian hero

Outside Haiti, the name Sylvio Cator means little. To Haitians, though, he is the namesake of their national stadium. Mention Stade Sylvio Cator to Haitians and they will usually smile, remembering a place which served as a platform to launch the country into the world's sporting consciousness in the 1970s.

Now, the stadium is being used to treat victims of Tuesday's earthquake. There is no bigger edifice in Port-au-Prince. There is probably no greater symbol of the spirit of the Haitain people.

Sylvio Cator was one of the most remarkable athletes of the last century. Cator captained the Haiti national team in soccer and also long-jumped nearly 25 feet, winning a silver medal in the 1928 Olympics in Paris. I thought of Cator when watching Bob Beamon play in a celebrity soccer game at the Copa Latina in Miami a few years ago. Beamon, though considered an almost supernatural athlete when he long-jumped 29 feet, 2 inches, was one of the worst soccer players I've ever seen. My point: the build of a long jumper and soccer player are so different, that you almost cannot be an elite competitor in both activities -- but Cator was.

My first trip to the Caribbean was in August, 1991. My assignment -- the Haiti-U.S. Olympic qualifying soccer match. Actually, there was no assignment -- I went on my own, hoping to be able to write about the game either for my newspaper or to freelance it. I was also working on a "searching for Joe Gaetjens" story, which I was able to get published in Soccer Zones, thanks to Anne Woodworth.

I had never seen a place resembling Port-au-Prince and I don't believe there is anything like it in the Western Hemisphere, in terms of the scale of squalor. A friend once asked Mother Teresa where people were most needed for charitable causes and humanitarian work, expecting her to recommend some heavily overpopulated place on the Indian sub-continent or Southeast Asia. Her reply: "Haiti."

In the early '90s, the economy of Haiti's capital was suffering, there was little infrastructure. The Ton Ton Macoutes, the Duvalier's enforcers, were still around. The U.S. went to Stade Sylvio Cator the day before the game for a training session, and was greeted by a member of the Fédération Haitienne de Football who told coach Lothar Osiander the team was not allowed on the field, yelling at him for nearly the entire workout. The U.S. team mostly stayed inside at the Holiday Inn. A few of us went to the Marce de Fer, and I think assistant coach Len Roitman bought something. Thom Meredith and I got to Petionville for what was supposed to be a Boukmans Eksperyans show, but ended up being a Swedish rock band.

I went out on my own, hooking up with a guy who attended the Newman School in Back Bay. He took me to the Hotel Olofsson, the main setting for Graham Greene's The Comedians, the book/film which first sparked my interest in Haiti. There, we met Aubelin Jolicoeur, Greene's Petit Pierre, who had seen Gaetjens play in the '40s and written some poetic stuff about the experience. Jolicoeur had been known as "Mr. Haiti," working in a promotional capacity for the government. Jolicoeur was a survivor, an incredibly up-beat person who lived to the age of about 80, and it is probably good he has not had to witness what is going on in Port-au-Prince now.

Wherever we went, my driver would stop and try to pick up news, try to get a feel for what was going on. Duvalier had not been gone long, and Aristide's presidency was not considered stable. There could be an uprising at any time? Who knows? The docks seemed to provide some of the clearest indications of the economic and political climate, though you needed to know how to interpret the activity there.

Anyway, I went to Joe Gaetjens' house, saw the building which housed his family's laundromat, was taken to Fort Dimanche prison, right to the cell where he was probably killed. There were cows grazing on the grounds of the prison, no longer in use.

The night of Aug. 25, 1991, I went with the team to Stade Sylvio Cator. The place was filled, spectators literally climbing onto the light stanchions to view the match. The U.S. took a 2-0 victory on goals by Joe-Max Moore and Dante Washington. Brad Friedel was excellent in goal, though the Haitians squandered a point blank chance the one time they appeared to beat Friedel. The crowd was crazy. But I don't mean that in an irrational way. They reacted positively to positive accomplishments on the field and negatively to poor play, always quite passionately. They hit a linesman with a rock after a controversial offside call, and only the intervention of the federation president prevented the game from being suspended.

As for the ride back to the hotel, it was slightly insane. First of all, there are no street lights to speak of in Port-au-Prince. At night, it is very, very dark. You sense, rather than actually see, there are dozens of people en route; and you watch shapes scatter away from the headlights. On the way out of the stadium area, a rock went through a window and hit the bus driver in the head. There was broken glass and blood, but he kept going and got us back to the hotel. There is no way anyone could have made that drive without knowing the way, because you could not see a street sign.

Osiander was pretty calm throughout the whole ordeal. I remember interviewing Mike Burns and Cobi Jones, later recalling any pressure they endured in their pro careers would not compare to this one.

There are many symbols of resistance to slavery in Haiti. The main road from the airport is named for John Brown. There are statues near the stadium of the Revolution leaders Dessalines, Henri Cristophe, the inspiration for the slaves' uprising, Le Marron Inconnu. The biggest monument to a Haitian hero, though, is Stade Sylvio Cator. The stadium provided inspirational memories when it was home to the national team which qualified for the 1974 World Cup, and took the lead against Italy before falling, 3-1.

My lasting memory of Port-au-Prince was not only the squalor of the city but also the spirit of the people. Living conditions could not have been worse, but Haitians were friendly and, as much as they could be, optimistic. Stade Sylvio Cator is a 40,000-plus capacity concrete bowl, refurbished for a 2006 Haiti-Brazil game. Now, it is being used to try to help sort out bodies. Hopefully, someday the name of the stadium will again evoke positive memories.


  1. Great story Frank. Thanks for sharing. Here's hoping that things get better, and soon.

  2. Sylvio Cator: Haitian hero, Stade Sylvio Cator.
    The stadium is phenomenal.
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