Ready or not, Pan Am Games ready to go Cuba wins race to finish venues

athletes pleased by facilities

August 01, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVANA -- The first victory of the Pan American Games is that the facilities are done.

Just don't look too closely at the peeling paint, or the cracked concrete, or the toilets that don't flush, or the plumbing that leaks, or the pools that are filled with murky water, or the track that is littered with cigarette butts.

Eight months ago, these sites were all just dirt roads and empty shells, a hope and a dream for a country on economic life support. But now, the main venues that overlook the sea east of Havana are built, constructed in the nick of time for tomorrow's ready-or-not opening ceremony that begins a 16-day athletic carnival among 39 nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Bread lines snake through the downtown area but the Games will go on.

The athletes are piling into Havana, now, clogging the corridors at Jose Marti Airport and hopping on to buses for police-escorted rides past bewildered residents. There are kids from Bermuda wearing white shirts and plaid shorts and veterans from Puerto Rico outfitted with bright blue shirts and jeans, and Americans dressed in T-shirts and shorts. They've taken up space in a brick and stucco village, 1,403 two- and three-bedroom apartments outfitted with color television sets and refrigerators.

"It's nice, a lot better than we thought," said Rob Edamura, a field hockey player from Canada. "They even have a disco, pool tables, arcades and shops. You can buy a Sony Walkman for $100. I know they don't like you [the United States]. They don't mind us. Wear a Maple Leaf on your shirt and you're OK."

The U.S. team, which will eventually number 685 athletes, is making itself comfortable in a country its government has isolated. Wrestlers and softball players have already journeyed to the second city of the Pan Am Games, Santiago de Cuba. A handful of other Americans are in the main village.

"It was a different feeling to wake up here," said John Keller, a team handball player from Toledo, Ohio. "We are in the middle of a place that could be a paradise. It has those qualities, but it's still a Third World country."

During team processing in Tampa, Fla., the athletes were given stern lectures by U.S. State Department personnel.

"We were told, 'If you get in trouble, you get arrested, you're on your own,' " said diver Mark Bradshaw of Columbus, Ohio. "There is nothing the State Department can do."

Diver Karen Laface of Fort Lauderdale said the State Department provided other helpful hints.

"They told us not to get in any political discussions," she said. "Don't bring in any anti-Fidel Castro material. And if someone wants you to help them defect, don't help."

The U.S. team also was prepared for Third World living standards. The United States Olympic Committee's chartered 175-foot cargo ship, the Good Samaritan, is docked in Havana Harbor, supplied with bottled water, medical equipment and athletic gear.

"We held a mosquito net party the first night," diver Mary Ellen Clark of Fort Lauderdale said. "We were told there would be lots of bugs."

The athletes' rooms are not airconditioned, but apparently a sea breeze and window fans make for pleasant night-time sleeping. Laface said the 90 degree temperatures and oppressive humidity during the day was bearable.

"It feels like Cuba," she said. "It has been a lot better than what we expected. The apartments are nice. The food is fine. The pool is great. Hey, it's almost done."

Security appears relaxed. The athletes' village is surrounded by a 4-foot fence that even a mediocre hurdler can clear. Unarmed security personnel stand guard. Towers are topped by security cameras.

Workers were putting the finishing touches on the spartan facilities yesterday. A crew at the 35,000-seat Pan American Stadium planted clumps of grass that appeared to have been kidnapped from other fields. At the pool complex, divers tried to concentrate while workers hammered metal rods and painted trim.

The main stadium already smells of sewage, and puddles are appearing on the marble floors of its entry way. Still, there is an exuberant pace at the sites. Yesterday, the Pan Am flame was lit and thousands of schoolchildren marched in the stadium as a salsa band played the theme song of the Games. Overhead, 10 sky divers floated through the cloudless skies.

L On a wing and a prayer, the Pan Am Games are ready to begin.

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