People, not politics, focus of games, U.S. coach says

August 02, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVANA -- Play the worldwide Communist song "The Internationale," and Jose Rodriguez flashes back to the morning of Oct. 5, 1961.

He was 11 then, a little scared about the trip he and his family were making to the United States. An uncle told him not to worry, for in America they would go to Coney Island and eat french fries out of paper cups. So, all that morning, Rodriguez thought of french fries, blocking out the journey from the provincial town of Sagualagrande to Jose Marti Airport, passing the hours sat huddled with his mother and father and sister.

"I remember we had to leave at 3 in the morning for the airport, and we stayed there until 11," he said. "They kept playing 'The Internationale' over the loudspeakers. Five or six hours of that. When I hear that song, I remember Cuba."

Rodriguez said the Cuba he remembers no longer exists. Yet he is proud at this moment, not only for himself, but also for his former country. Over and over, he says the Pan American Games that will begin today are not about politics or Fidel Castro, but rather about sports and hard work and making something from nothing.

"A year and a half ago, I would have thought, 'No way can Cuba finish the facilities and host these games,' " Rodriguez said. "But everything is done. Amazing."

Rodriguez, an assistant track coach, will march with the United States during today's opening ceremonies at Pan American Stadium. He said he expects the U.S. team to be received warmly, and he anticipates that the Cubans will put on a wonderful, 17-day show for the athletes from 39 Western Hemisphere nations.

"It is the Cubans' Games, not Fidel's Games," he said. "If you look at it from a political point of view, of course it is Fidel's. But, from a sporting point, it is the Cubans who built these facilities working three shifts a day. If you want to say the games are for sport, then these are the People's Games."

This is Rodriguez's 12th trip to his homeland. He visits his grandmother, who is 90. He looks up old friends.

He even mixes easily now with the official Cuban delegation, joking that, if he had never left, he would have grown up to run the country's track and field program.

Instead, he lives in Gainesville, Fla., and is an entrenched bureaucrat in American sports, coordinating amateur athletics in Florida, organizing the state's Sunshine Games and overseeing operations for the Mazda Track Club.

Rodriguez, 42, looks back on his early years in Cuba with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia for a way of life that is lost. He remembers a time when food was plentiful and daily life revolved around family and sports.

"You would walk three or four blocks and find a boxing gym," he said. "Or you would find a baseball field. However, because of the society, sports is now given more importance than it was in the 1950s. We had great baseball players and great boxers then, but you didn't hear about them as much. Now, you do."

Rodriguez said he recalls images of the revolution. For three days, there was gunfire in his town. His father, a research chemist, supported Castro at one time, but then quickly grew disenchanted as the political climate changed.

"When Castro made his speech and said he was a Communist, we were watching it on television," he said. "After the speech was over, my father turned off the set and said, 'We're going to America.' "

In 1985, Rodriguez made his first visit to Cuba with a group of track athletes. The climate between the countries was frigid, and he was viewed with mistrust. Slowly and surely, he detected a thaw. But he forever would view Cuba differently.

"You have a generation of people my age in the United States who, at times, are not sure what they really are," he said.

"Because of your accent and your last name, you may not be 100 percent accepted as an American. And you're not accepted as a Cuban either. You're in a twilight zone. But, sometimes, there is no going back home. You hold a Cinderella dream, and, for all of us, the dream is gone."

So Rodriguez looks at Cuba today and sees a country that is in desperate shape, a place scarred by 32 years of communism. Still, he says Cuba should not be shunned.

"If you remember back in the 1960s, when we had the Cold War with Eastern Europe, we had no progress, no relations," he said. "Once we had more sports exchanges, we had more dialogue, and things began to change. I'm happy that thousands of Canadians and Americans and Latin Americans are here. Hopefully, we will not seem a threat to each other."

Once, Rodriguez was unsure of whom to root for when athletes from Cuba and the United States met in boxing or baseball or track. Now, there are no doubts. The 11-year-old who dreamed of french fries at Coney Island while listening to "The Internationale" grew up to become an American.

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