Host, not sports, will be focus of Pan Am Games


July 28, 1991|By Bill Glauber

They will bring 50,000 gallons of bottled water and 32 years of political baggage to an island where rum is rationed and signs are posted proclaiming "Socialismo o Muerte," Socialism or Death.

They will shuttle in on flights from Tampa, Fla., remaining just long enough to compete in what may be remembered as the last sporting event of the Cold War era.

They will be strangers in a strange land.

Americans in Cuba.

The 11th Pan American Games begin Friday with opening ceremonies in Havana and conclude Aug. 18. A delegation of 1,200 American athletes and officials -- plus nearly 500 media members -- will attend the games in what is believed to be the largest one-time invasion of American citizens on the island since President Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959.

"I'm completely clueless about what Cuba is like," diver Mark Lenzi said. "I do have worries, though. I've heard they just don't like Americans. Down in Fort Lauderdale every day, Cubans are coming onto the beaches on rafts. What does that tell you?"

Separating fact from fiction could be the newest Pan Am Games sport. Americans who recently have been to Cuba say that the games, drawing 6,000 athletes and officials from 39 nations in North, Central and South America, will proceed smoothly and that the official welcome will be friendly.

"I have a higher level of confidence for these games than any others I've been involved in, and that includes past Olympics in Calgary [1988] and Los Angeles [1984]," said Greg Harney, the United States Olympic Committee's site coordinator. "Things are going well. The Cubans will host the best-ever Pan American Games."

Of course, there could be some potholes. The Cubans are in the midst of an economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hard times that shackled their chief benefactor, the Soviet Union.

"The bread lines were out in May," said George Roca, an economist from Adelphi University who visited Havana six weeks ago. "There were even lines for rum, and that is unheard of. People had to bring their own bottle to fill up. The attitude and psyche of the people was terrible, just depressing. All they have been told is to expect more work and more sacrifice."

Cuba apparently has invested more than $100 million, and a measure of national pride, to ensure the games' success. Sixty sports installations and 1,473 apartments have been erected in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the host cities. When USOC officials toured the sites in January, they tromped through mud and wandered around empty shells, wondering aloud if the projects could be completed on time.

"They had over 8,000 workers constructing the athletes' village," said Jim Flowers, national team coordinator for U.S. Swimming. "Everywhere you looked, you saw workers with hand tools, loading cement with buckets. Whatever you want to say about the facilities, you have to admit that they are completely handmade. Now I know how the pyramids were built -- step by step, stone by stone."

Athletes were recruited to work on the projects. Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, pushed wheelbarrows filled with cement at the site of Estadio Panamericano, and Ana Quirot, 1990 World Cup champion, moved rocks. Synthetic turf for the track in the 35,000-seat main stadium came from Germany, and bowling lanes were imported from Japan. Spartan facilities were built for aquatics, cycling, tennis and rowing and canoeing.

"The Pan American Games are an international commitment our country undertook," Castro told journalists earlier this year. "It is a sacred promise we must honor. We are a country of honor."

To live up to its commitment to host the Pan Am Games, which it made in 1986, Cuba has been forced on what amounts to an economic starvation diet. There are shortages of virtually all basic foodstuffs, although officials say they will serve athletes meals containing 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. The 32-year-old revolution also is running on empty. To cope with a 35 percent reduction of Soviet oil, Cuba has imported 700,000 bicycles from China, and farmers are replacing their tractors with oxen.

"It's not like you can go to a corner grocery store and load up," said Ron Polk, the head coach of the U.S. baseball team that played a three-game series in Cuba earlier this month.

Polk recently ate dinner at one of Havana's most exclusive restaurants, Le Bodeguita del Medio. While the food was plentiful, Polk said he was surprised during a post-dinner trip to a rest room.

"There was a guy back there selling tissue paper for 25 cents a strip," he said. "You have to bring your own tissue paper. And the soap is like cardboard; it won't even come off in your hands. But I'll say this about the Cubans: They're wonderful hosts. It's a poor country, but the people try their best to make you feel welcome. Still, you're 90 miles from Miami, but you feel like you're a million miles away."

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