The Pan American Games, held since 1951 every four years in the summer preceding the Olympic Games, traditionally have been an unusual showcase. Political turmoil and poor planning are hallmarks of an event that often is dubbed the Pandemonium Games.
In 1959 in Chicago, organizers not only failed to provide adequate transportation or translators, but they also brought in horses that couldn't jump in the equestrian competition. In 1979 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, U.S. basketball coach Bob Knight scored a triple double for Ugly Americanism: berating officials, voicing ethnic slurs, shoving a police officer. Four years later in Caracas, Venezuela, athletes were given keys to their dormitory rooms, only to discover there were no doors. Nineteen athletes ++ fled the village in disgrace after the biggest doping bust in amateur history.
Scuffles between anti-Castro demonstrators and Cuban athletes chilled the atmosphere of the 1987 games in Indianapolis.
No one dares predict what will happen in Havana, especially with many foreigners congregating during a muggy month. Although the U.S. and Cuba have maintained sporting links for the past two decades, Cuba officially has been isolated by the U.S. government since the American ambassador was recalled in October 1960. Going to Cuba has created unique problems for USOC officials, who had to receive Treasury Department clearance for all items being shipped to the island.
On Friday, the 175-foot ship Good Samaritan left Miami for
Havana with a cargo of bottled water, office supplies, medical gear and athletic equipment for the U.S. delegation.
"The only thing we're definitely trying to do is at all costs not to rely on the Cuban medical system," said Ed Ryan, the USOC medical coordinator. "We feel the need to be self-contained is paramount. It's not a criticism to the Cubans, it's just a matter of poverty."
ABC-TV attempted to pay the Cubans $8.7 million for broadcast rights fees, but was blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, which has been conducting a decades-long economic blockade of the island. The Cubans then gave away the rights. ABC sent over a boatload of equipment, including 15 mobile units, 45 cameras, 50 tape machines and 20 office trailers.
"There are a lot of obstacles for us to overcome," said executive producer Curt Gowdy Jr. "We are going in and setting up in very unusual circumstances. But we expect to overcome the problems."
The primary story of these games is the site, not the 31 sports. While most of the countries are sending their top athletes, the U.S. is bringing a delegation with few superstars. Don't expect to see Jackie Joyner Kersee or Carl Lewis in track and field, or NBA stars taking on the reining gold-medal champions of Brazil.
The U.S. is supplying its best in diving, wrestling, women's basketball and men's field hockey. The baseball team, composed mostly of college freshmen and sophomores, must finish in the top four to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona Spain, and the men's team handball squad must capture the gold medal to advance to the Olympics.
For the Americans, this will be a unique adventure.
Some, such as marathoner Jan Ettle of Freeport, Minn., will have to cope with the heat.
"I'm overdressing when I go out running," she said. "I'm wearing triple long-sleeved shirts. It's going to be a survival test. Forget about fast times."
Others, such as soccer player Dante Washington of Columbia, are wondering about the reaction of the crowds. Earlier this year, he played a soccer match in Panama and was pelted with ice.
"I'm trying to keep an open mind about the place," he said. "I heard Cuba used to be nice. But wasn't that a long time ago?"
And still others, such as pitcher Tony Phillips, who played in a three-game series in Santiago earlier this month, dread making a return flight in Cuba.
"What I'll always remember about Cuba is a doggone plane ride we took between Havana and Santiago," said Phillips, of Hattiesburg, Miss. "There was no air conditioning, and we were all sweating bullets. Remember that airplane the Cleveland Indians flew in that movie, "Major League?" Well, this one was worse. They didn't have any duct tape on the wings, though. If I had seen duct tape, I would have taken a cab."
But Phillips said the bumpy ride was worth making. He went to Cuba expecting to meet with the enemy. Instead, he found a few fans.
"I personally had never played in front of crowds like that before," he said. "Two hours before the game, there are 10,000 people in the stadium. Everything was real quiet when we batted, but when the Cubans came up to the plate, people were rattling drums and dancing. Still, when we hit a home run, everyone would stand up and cheer. It's nice down there, real nice. On a scale of 1 to 10, they give you an 11 for hospitality."
The probable Pan Am Games stars