HAVANA -- They brought out the athletes but held the salsa during yesterday's opening ceremony of the 11th Pan American Games.
In a restrained and carefully orchestrated, three-hour, Soviet-style spectacular, complete with card stunts, sky divers and thousands of student dancers, Cuba welcomed more than 5,000 athletes from 38 other Western Hemisphere nations.
The first record of the 17-day games was recorded by Cuban President Fidel Castro, who wore his customary outfit of green combat fatigues and black army boots. A man who normally gives speeches ranging from two to four hours needed only 10 seconds to declare the games open.
A crowd of nearly 30,000 spectators, made up of students, model workers, dignitaries and tourists, sat on the concrete steps of the nearly completed Pan American Stadium, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The crowd applauded rhythmically, chanted in unison and greeted the athletes with polite warmth.
Blue skies at the beginning of the program gave way to gray clouds and light rain. Lightning bolts streaked in the distance as torch-bearer Javier Sotomayor, Cuba's world-record holder in the high jump, took an escalator through the stands and emerged at the top of the stadium to spark a flame.
Ana Quirot, a national heroine of Cuba and a dominant runner at 400 and 800 meters, took the competitor's oath.
The parade of athletes was a mixture of color, mirth and music. Argentines dressed in blue led the procession. There were Brazilians in white and green warm-ups, Canadians dressed in white shirts and paisley gray topped by bush hats and Colombians dancing to the beat of the Latin music.
And, of course, there were 300 representatives of the United States, a country that holds no diplomatic relations with the host Cubans. The Americans, dressed in khaki pants and shorts and denim shirts, received politically correct applause from the crowd. The cheers were neither too loud nor too prolonged.
The U.S. delegation, which is expected to swell to 723 as athletes shuttle in from Tampa, Fla., as the Games progress, was led by flag-bearer Jim Schreiner.
Schreiner, a 26-year-old kayaker from Day, N.Y., was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. Marching just behind him were U.S. Olympic Committee president Robert Helmick. USOC vice president George Steinbrenner also participated.
"It was special, absolutely incredible," said Tarasa Davis, a member of the U.S. yacht team from Atlanta. "I liked the camaraderie. I loved our flag. It gave me goose bumps."
Paul Kerner, a yachtsman from San Francisco, said he spent most of the time during the opening ceremony talking to Chilean competitors.
"We talked about Fidel," he said. "The Chileans couldn't believe Fidel could hold these games. We couldn't believe it either."
Cuba, politically and economically isolated by the United States, is reeling after a cutoff of aid from its chief benefactor, the Soviet Union. These games are viewed by many as a safety valve for a hard-pressed local population.
The crowd roared when the 629-member Cuban team, waving scarves, completed the parade. The Cuban women were dressed in white, pleated skirts and red shirts, and the men wore blue pants and red shirts. Orestes Kindelan, captain of the baseball team, carried the flag.
During his speech, Mario Vasquez Rana, chief of the Pan Am Games, thanked the workers who toiled double and triple shifts to build 21 sports facilities, and declared: "It's a big day for the people of Cuba."
The multisport competition begins today with marathons for men and women and the first U.S.-Cuba game in men's basketball.
"We're ready to go," Davis said. "The first event was wonderful. What a reception, not just from the fans, but from the other athletes. This is something that I wouldn't trade for anything."