The Last 'Viva!'

August 04, 1991

While his world was collapsing, Fidel Castro was spending five years and perhaps $140 million building 21 sports venues and improving 46 others and creating an athletes' village complete with everything except, it seems, toilet seats.

While Communist-world trade disappeared and was not replaced, while diminished Soviet subsidies continued but with no assurance for the future, while all his cherished beliefs crashed in every other Socialist country, Mr. Castro prepared for the Pan American Games, Cuba's greatest international gathering in his 32 years of dictatorship.

It was also his chance to show up Washington's fruitless drive to isolate Communist Cuba from the hemisphere. Of 5,259 athletes competing in 31 sports over 16 days, 685 are Americans. Yet the State Department won't let American fans go watch them, only journalists. ABC was going to televise the games for itself and Turner Broadcasting, only to have the U.S. Treasury veto it because $6,525,000 of its $8,700,000 fee for the rights would have gone to Cuba.

Mr. Castro outsmarted the U.S. Treasury by waiving the host nation's fee, and Americans can see some 20 hours of the 11th quadrennial Pan American Games live, complete with forbidden

Cuba in the background. That's generous in a country that is dead broke, where bread is rationed, with long lines to buy it.

Cuba is going down the tube, but "to be able to celebrate these games is a victory for the Cuban people," according to Cuba's Javier Sotomayor, who ought to know, because he is the first man in world history to have jumped 8 feet high and is a hero to his people.

The games are somewhat diminished by the non-appearance of some of the United States' best, which is not a political statement but a time conflict with other international competitions. In basketball, while favored, we are fielding a team of amateurs (if that's what you call the top college players), though the NBA's best will represent this country in the Barcelona Olympics next year.

Well, whether in Indianapolis or Havana, the Pan American Games are grand stuff, a half-way Olympics in which, normally, the U.S. is the U.S.S.R. and Cuba is the East Germany, medal-wise. The purpose of sport is sport. May the best athletes win. Cuba can worry about its future 16 days from now. On with the games!

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