HAVANA -- Close your eyes, and you could be in Akron or Baltimore. The smell of beer and cigarettes fills the air. The sound of heavy balls landing with a thud on wood and rolling into pins is unmistakable. The only thing missing is Chris Schenkel whispering the play-by-play.
Bowling has come back to Cuba.
In a 24-lane center that hugs a spot off Revolutionary Square, the cultural clash of the Pan American Games will take place when bowling emerges as a full-medal sport. With fewer than 100 active bowlers on the island, no one is quite sure what to make of this spectacle.
But the Bolera Ramon Fonst building is air-conditioned, the two bars are stocked with beer and rum, and the showers in the locker rooms actually spew hot water -- an amazing array of conveniences in a crumbling city. Already, hundreds of inquisitive fans have wandered into the concrete-and-glass facility during practice sessions. They sit and attempt to decipher a sport not seen by the masses since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power.
"To think of bowling in Cuba is very strange," said Julie Gardner, a two-time United States women's amateur champion from Huntington Beach, Calif. "You keep asking yourself, 'Am I really here?' It's all in the back of your mind. Bowling. Cuba."
Bowling was common in Cuba during the 1940s when more than 40 private, four-lane operations flourished, catering to tourists and wealthy residents. After Castro took over, capitalism was out, communism was in, and the lanes were torn down.
But beneath the exterior of the bearded Marxist-Leninist beats the heart of a Pittsburgh steelworker. Castro is a bowler. There is even a rumor he rolls a few frames at night on a private lane in his Presidential Palace.
"That's the big mystery," said Jerry Koenig, executive director of the U.S. Tenpin Bowling Federation. "We'll never know, though. I was told that Fidel had a 170 average. When I met him, he wouldn't comment on that. He was a right-hander. But when he hurt his hand, he switched to his left. He was proud of that."
Koenig said Castro also pushed for construction of the bowling center after Cuba was awarded the 11th Pan Am Games in 1986.
"This comes from Fidel -- his plan for bowling is this should be a sport for the Cuban people," Koenig said. "He sees it as a sport that requires coordination, a sport that Cubans can excel in, like baseball and boxing."
To build the facility, the Cubans mastered the sport of evading the U.S. trade embargo, and Brunswick was supposed to supply the lanes for free. But the deal was blocked by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who wrote Koenig in fall 1990 that the lanes could be installed, but would have to be taken down and shipped back to the U.S. after the Games.
The Cubans cut a deal with Odin of Japan, acquiring 24 used lanes, pin-setting equipment, 240 bowling shoes and balls. JTC Where only a shell existed last October, there now is a building shaped like a smaller version of the Capital Centre. A similar center, if built in the U.S. with new equipment, would cost $70,000 a lane.
Sharing space with the bowling lanes are a volleyball arena and a sports museum. Cuba's Cooperstown contains such items as runner Alberto Juantorena's 1976 Olympic 800-meter gold medal, boxer Kid Chocolate's brown warm-up robe, and a mahogany chess table with matching chairs used in a 1921 world title match.
Don't expect to see Cubans start to knock off the siete-diez split any time soon. The national team, composed of former volleyball, karate and basketball players, began practice a year ago by rolling volleyballs into plastic pins on a gym floor. Eventually, a six-lane center was built in Santos Spiritus, and the team spent several weeks training in Venezuela.
Romero Rodriguez, a former basketball player, was hired as coach. A year ago he was trying to learn the game's fundamentals by attending clinics in Mexico and Nicaragua. Now, he talks of axis of rotation and biomechanics.
"I was impressed with how far he has come," said U.S. national coach Fred Boren. "Eventually, the Cubans will master this sport."
But this also is viewed as a family sport by Castro. The lanes will be opened to the public when the Pan Am Games are complete. A midnight league is a natural in a city where people stand in line three hours for an ice cream cone.
"It will be interesting to come back and see what happens to this place in five years," said U.S. women's coach Pat Rossler, of Santa Clara, Calif. "I think the sport is going to take off."
Thirty-two years into the revolution, and Cuba turns out to be the Akron of the Caribbean.