HAVANA -- Don't panic.
That was the message issued by United States Olympic Committee president Robert Helmick yesterday midway through the Pan American Games.
While the Cubans are hoarding gold medals like U.S. dollars, the Americans are settling for the Pan Am equivalent of pesoes -- silvers and bronzes. Cubans are dominating track and field and weightlifting. They kayoed the U.S. women's basketball team and got a gold in men's platform diving.
"We've got a great team here," Helmick said during a briefing. "They're going to win. They're going to get the most medals."
Through eight days, the United States led in overall medals with 200, including 69 golds. Cuba was second overall with 178 medals, but had 96 golds, its best performance.
"It's not embarrassing," Helmick said.
The United States is expected to use its swimming depth to sink the Cubans in the gold-medal standings. The United States is the dominant Pan Am Games power, accumulating 2,336 medals in the event's first 10 stagings, compared to 1,077 for Cuba.
But if the first week of competition is a barometer, there are no sure things in the Pan Am Games.
Who could have guessed that the U.S. women's basketball team, with a 42-game international winning streak, would lose to Brazil and Cuba and then play Canada for the bronze medal? No one outside Cuba had even heard of Rioger Ramirez before he won the men's 10-meter platform diving, an event won in the last three games by American Greg Louganis. The Cubans were known to be strong weightlifters, but 29 golds in 30 chances?
"If Cuba is ever going to do well, they'll do well on their home court," Helmick said. "I was at men's softball in Santiago, and that crowd . . . wow."
Helmick brushed aside criticism that the United States had brought a second-rate team to Cuba. Top athletes in track and field, gymnastics and boxing bypassed the Games to prepare for world championships. Elite swimmers trained for the upcoming Pan Pacific meet in Edmonton, Alberta.
"I can't deal with a statement that we have a second team," Helmick said. "We don't have a first team or a second team. Do I see that the Pan Am Games are going to get in trouble because all the top athletes aren't here? The purpose of the Games is for competition between countries of the Americas. The level of competition here is close to the level in Indianapolis in 1987."
* Commenting for the first time on the U.S. men's basketball team's shuttling from the athletes' village to Miami's Mayfair Hotel, Helmick said: "As a former athlete, as a former manager of a team, when you get right down to it, you have to make some judgments in what is in the best interest of your team at that time. We made it quite clear that the time of their stay would be determined at a team management level."