HAVANA -- Now that the opening ceremonies are over and the culture shock of negotiating a path through a socialist state is softened, the story line for the next 16 days of the 11th Pan American Games is the struggle of one Goliath against 38 Davids.
As usual, the 31-sport competition pits the rich athletic giant, the United States, against 38 poorer, smaller, yet still proud nations of the Western Hemisphere. The games will receive an immediate sporting jolt this morning with the running of a men's and women's marathon and the first U.S.-Cuban contest in a men's basketball game.
"We're going to do the best we can," USOC president Robert Helmick said diplomatically.
Evie Dennis, the U.S. chief of mission, smiled as Helmick made his remarks yesterday and said: "We hope to win the gold medal in baseball."
Baseball, Cuba's national sport, is clearly the glamour event of these games. The Cubans boast an experienced team led by third baseman Omar Linares. The United States, which must finish in the top four to secure a berth at the 1992 Summer Olympics, counters with a squad comprised of college underclassmen.
Almost across the board, the United States is bringing what amounts to a second-string team of 723 athletes to the Pan Am Games. Most of the track stars have skipped the meet to pick up lucrative paychecks in Europe and prepare for the World Championships later this month in Tokyo.
Top American gymnasts are also preparing for world championships next month in Indianapolis, and leading swimmers are training and peaking for this month's Pan Pacific meet in Edmonton, Alberta.
Still, the games offer some attractive matchups. The U.S. basketball team, a college squad led by Christian Laettner of Duke and Walt Williams of Maryland, is trying to regain the gold medal. The defending champion Brazilians will introduce a revamped international lineup. Oscar Schmidt, Brazil's aging, charismatic star, did not make the trip to Cuba.
The dark horse of the men's tournament is Puerto Rico, a team that usually gives the United States fits. With NBA pros poised to represent the United States in the 1992 Olympics, this may be the last, best chance to beat the Americans in a prime international event.
"Sure, why not beat them this time?" said Ramon Rivas, the former Temple center who leads the Puerto Rican team. "We may not get another chance."
The prime matchup of the track and field competition will pit high jumper Javier Sotomayor, the only man to leap 8 feet, against Hollis Conway, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist from the United States.
Ana Quirot, in the 400 and 800 meters, Roberto Hernandez in the 400, and Emilio Valle, in the 110 hurdles, lead the Cubans. The top Americans are reigning world indoor champion Andre Cason in the 100, Celeste Halliday in the 800 and Sabrina Dornhoefer in the 3,000.
Brazilian sprinter Robson da Silva is expected to attend. But Jamaica's Merlene Ottey, undefeated in the 100 and 200 since 1989, apparently will not fly in from Europe to run her races.
Boxing is normally a highlight of U.S.-Cuban competition. The Cuban boxers, who last competed in the Olympics in 1980, were looking forward to meeting the best the United States had to offer. Instead, they'll meet a team of runners-up. The U.S. champions have skipped the Pan Am Games to prepare for the World Championships in Sydney, Australia.
"Well, every country has its own way of preparing," said Cuba's 132-pound champion Julio Gonzalez. "Maybe they're preparing for the World Championships. Four years ago at the Pan Am Games in the United States, we had our best boxers then."
The United States is sending its best in men's and women's softball, shooting, men's field hockey and men's team handball.
The field hockey and team handball teams are under the greatest pressure in the games. They must win gold medals to advance to the 1992 Summer Olympics.
"In 1987, we had the same thing, and we won it in the U.S.," said team handball veteran Bill Kessler of Franklin Square, N.Y. "It took us two overtimes, but we beat the Cubans. Here, obviously, it will be different. I think Cuba might be psyched out by the idea of playing in its country. Sometimes, that team gets out of control. Hey, we have to beat them."
Rick Oleksyk, another team handball veteran from Parma, Ohio, said he expects U.S. athletes to receive chilly receptions by the fans throughout the competition. He said he wouldn't want it any other way.
"We don't take it personally," he said. "If we were in America, we'd do the same thing. It's like the Cowboys playing the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Who do you think those fans root for? The bottom line is the home-field advantage. Let's get this thing on."