Castro leads hero's welcome for Cuban champions.

HAVANA - Cuba's number one boxing fan, President Fidel Castro, presided a hero's welcome on Tuesday for the Caribbean island's amateur fighters, who were run-away winners at the World Amateur Boxing Championship in Belfast last week. 

Cuba's highly-rated boxers took seven gold medals in the finals at the weekend, followed by Russia with two. 

"You've done a brilliant job, all of you," Castro said during a welcome ceremony at Havana's international airport. "In the name of the fatherland, we thank you." 

As state TV broadcast the boxers' arrival from Northern Ireland live across the nation, Castro, in his trademark military garb, greeted them one-by-one with a hug. 

"I got really excited watching you, everyone did," Castro added, praising the "intelligence" and "serenity" he had seen in the Cuban boxers while watching the bouts from Havana. 

Cuba's domination of the 11th World Championship took away the bitter taste left after the previous tournament in Houston, in 1999, when the Cuban team stormed out in protest at alleged corruption and biased refereeing. 

Castro said Cuba's walkout then had prompted a clean-up in amateur boxing, making the Belfast tournament "one of the most impartial tournaments I have ever seen". 

Castro likes to associate himself closely with the island's sportsmen, who are viewed as ambassadors of the socialist sports' system run and funded by his communist government in the four decades since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. 

Boxing stars in Cuba, where sport is amateur only, are national idols. While paid a pittance compared to successful professional boxers around the world, they do receive perks from the state like a car, a house and foreign travel.