HAVANA -- Earl Bell has heard this all before, the excuses and the whining and theories that accompany a dismal track and field performance by the United States. The names and incidents change, but the theme always is the same -- the world is out to get the Americans.
So this time at the 11th Pan American Games, Fidel Castro may or may not have snubbed 400 sprinter Chrystie Gaines, and a Cuban judge may have robbed long jumper Llewellyn Starks of a gold medal, and another Cuban official may have lassoed a gold from sprinter Andre Cason with a belated false start.
The pole vaulter who has soared into the sky for three decades listens, and smiles.
"The sport of track and field is like the Cuban economy -- they're both in bad shape," Bell said. "It will take a lot to get both back in shape."
Actually, in Cuba, track and field is enjoying a celebration, while in the United States, the sport is in a predictable crisis. The Cubans, led by sprinter Ana Quirot, are laying waste to a bunch of second-string Americans in front of frantic, partisan mobs at a unfinished concrete pit called Pan American Stadium.
Yesterday was a day off in track, a time to count medals and point fingers. Cuba leads with eight golds, two silvers and four bronzes, with the Americans second with one gold, six silvers and five bronzes. The Brazilians also are a factor with three golds, one silver and two bronzes.
None of this is a surprise. The Cubans are home and home teams historically do well. Just watch Quirot win the 400 as the crowd chants Cuba, Cuba, and you get the idea of what home-field advantage really means.
"There is a synergy," said Joe Vigil, the U.S. men's coach. "Athletes perform better for their home crowd."
The Americans also are operating with a B-team, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishers from the June national championships. The stars of the sport like Carl Lewis, Greg Foster and Jackie Joyner-Kersee skipped the meet to collect paychecks in Europe and prepare for the World Championships to be held later this month in Tokyo.
The athletic calendar is more crowded now then it was back in 1951, when the Pan Am Games were created. Most athletes, if given a choice, will run for the money.
"The problem is prestige vs. money," Bell said. "What I'd like to see is being capitalist by nature -- the most prestigious competitions should be the highest-paying, just like in most sports. Guys at the U.S. Olympic Committee will roll over in their graves. But things change. I'm not saying in four or eight years, but there is change."
The opening three days of the track and field program have been an American nightmare. Controversies have outnumbered victories. The lone bright spot was Sabrina Dornhoefer winning the 3,000.
Monday night, chaos and confusion were blamed for Castro's alleged slight of Gaines in the 100-meter medal ceremony. After awarding Cuban Liliana Allen the gold and Jamaican Beverley McDonald the bronze, Castro deferred to a Pan Am official, who placed the silver around Gaines' neck. Castro later shook Gaines' right hand as she held an American flag in her left.
The American coaching staff asked Cuban sports official Alberto Juantorena if the slight was intentional. Assured it wasn't, they .. relented. "It wasn't a snub -- just a miscommunication," assistant coach Jose Rodriguez said.
The Americans also accepted the official explanation for a botched call in the long jump. Somehow, a phantom foul was detected on what would have been a gold-medal leap by Starks. After first saying he didn't want the medal, Starks settled for the silver behind Cuban Jaime Jefferson.
"Things happen in the confusion of competition," Rodriguez said. "It's human nature. The man who raked the pit acted too quickly. It happens."
Cason also remained upset yesterday after finishing second in the men's 100 behind Robson Da Silva. Twice, Cason leaped into the lead, only to be called back by two false starts.
"I can't actually say I would have won; however, I was technically sound," Cason said.
Cason added that he wasn't "cheated" out of the gold. Even if he was, it's nothing unusual in track and field. Just ask Bell.
"I've been cheated everywhere in the world perhaps once, even at the Mount SAC Meet in the United States," Bell said. "It's
DTC nothing against Cubans as a people. It's just individuals who sometimes act on their own."
Bell said he is willing to take his chances in the pole vault competition. The nightmare, he says, has to end. Besides, he wants to meet Castro.
"I want to shake his hand," he said. "The guy is a hero here. Who knows -- maybe he'll ask me to coach their pole vaulters."