Cuba's last-day gold rush eclipses U.S. 11 boxing titles boosts total to 140

August 19, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVANA -- The official end came during a closing ceremony under the stars in a concrete stadium where there was nothing more than a pile of dirt six months ago.

But the emotional climax to the 11th Pan American Games occurred yesterday afternoon inside a sweaty, claustrophobic gymnasium, with Cuban President Fidel Castro sitting under the massive mural of Che Guevara and a national hero named Felix Savon delivering clubbing right-hand knockdown blows to the head of United States heavyweight boxer Shannon Briggs.

Cuba calling.

From start to finish, the Pan Am Games were Cuba's games. Competing under the slogan "Listos Para Vencer" (Ready to Win), the Cubans came from behind on the closing day and knocked off the United States right where it hurts, in the gold-medal standings.

Receiving an 11-medal boost in boxing and titles in women's and men's volleyball, Cuba finished the games with 140 golds and 265 overall medals.

The United States finished with 130 golds but led the overall standings with 352 medals. It was the second-best overall medal performance in games history behind the 369 the United States won in 1987 in Indianapolis. But this was the first time the United States lost in the gold chase since sending only 15 teams to compete in 21 sports at the inaugural games in 1951 in Argentina.

"For the vast number of our sports in the United States Olympic Committee, the Pan American Games are not the competition on which a lot of sports should be judged," USOC president Robert Helmick said. "Our name is the U.S. Olympic Committee."

The United States was sending college students to play baseball and basketball -- and finishing third. While second- and third-stringers from the United States competed in track and field, swimming, gymnastics and boxing, Cuba showcased its elite athletes in its new facilities, many of which were completed only hours before the games began Aug. 2.

Cuba cleaned up with 29 golds in weightlifting, 18 in track and field, 11 in judo, even 10 in canoe-kayak.

The United States countered with 24 golds each in swimming and shooting, 12 in archery, 11 in wrestling and nine in track and field. The United States also had a one-gold bonus in soccer, another sign that the country may be able to field a competitive team in time for the 1994 World Cup.

Cuban excellence overwhelming U.S. mediocrity never was more apparent than in boxing. Cuba won 11 of the 12 weight classes, rolling out four world champions, including Savon. The United States responded with a team of runners-up from last month's Olympic Festival.

The United States had three losing finalists -- Kenneth Friddy, Patrice Brooks and Briggs -- and one winner -- Steve Johnston. A 139-pound athlete from Colorado Springs, Colo., Johnston earned a decision over Edgar Ruiz of Mexico.

"It means a lot for me to win this," Johnston said. "I just wanted to come out and perform at my best."

So did Briggs. For two weeks the 19-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., trained and waited, trained and waited. The 39 nations of the Western Hemisphere could come up with only three boxers in the 201-pound weight class.

"I felt no fear," Briggs said. "That's just me."

A little fear wouldn't have hurt. The crowd at the Sports City Coliseum was primed, rejoicing over Cuban victories and driven into a frenzy by Castro when they did the wave. The fans finally just stood and screamed as an announcer declared Cuba had won the gold-medal race.

Into the ring stepped Savon, 6 feet 4, 201 pounds, a two-time world champion, and Briggs, 6-2, 192, a veteran of 25 amateur fights. Savon leaped into the air. Briggs did the same. Savon walked menacingly toward the center of the ring. Briggs puckered his lips and swiveled his hips.

The fight lasted 2 minutes, 45 seconds. Two Savon rights. Two knockdowns. The crowd going berserk. Savon smiling. Briggs in another time zone. Castro bounding down from the balcony to slip the gold around Savon's neck. The ultimate photo opportunity in a sports-crazed country.

"I felt kind of embarrassed. It was on national television," Briggs said. "But a champion will fight back. I'd like to fight Savon anywhere. Cuba. Home. Anywhere. I just got caught with a shot. I didn't see it coming."

A lot of the U.S. athletes got caught with the same kind of shot in Cuba. They didn't see it coming, either.

Final medals table

.. .. .. .. .. .. .G.. .. S.. .. B.. .. Tot

United States.. .. 130 .. 125 .. 97. .. 352

Cuba.. .. .. .. .. 140 .. 62. .. 63. .. 265

Canada .. .. .. .. 22. .. 46. .. 59. .. 127

Brazil .. .. .. .. 21. .. 21. .. 37. .. 79

Mexico .. .. .. .. 14. .. 23. .. 38. .. 75

Argentina .. .. .. 11. .. 15. .. 29. .. 55 bTC Colombia. .. .. .. .5. .. 15. .. 21. .. 41

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