Cuba's open secret: Fidel-ity to sports
A SMALL busload of American journalists was pulling out of Havana's sprawling sporting goods factory when a shop foreman waved the vehicle to a halt. In a gesture of friendship, she stepped aboard, opened a box of freshly stitched baseballs, and distributed one to each visitor. The balls carried the initials L.P.V. for Listo Para Vencer - ``Ready to Win.'' That's what Cuban athletes are these days.Skip to next paragraph
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About 450 of Cuba's best have arrived in Indianapolis for tomorrow's opening of the 10th Pan American Games, running through Aug. 23. (Preview of the Games, Page 16.) Counting coaches and officials, the delegation totals about 650, possibly the largest official Cuban entourage allowed to enter the United States since Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959. These athletes have indeed come ready to win, since under Dr. Castro's communist regime, success in sports is a goal worth pursuing and sacrificing for.
Cuba's economy sputters along, but the country annually pumps nearly $140 million into its nationalized sports program, which moves talented youngsters up the competitive ladder from provincial to national teams and sometimes into special school curriculums.
Sports are near and dear to the hearts of Cubans, whose leader was once considered a pitcher worth scouting by the Washington Sena tors (not the congressmen). Baseball is as much the national pastime in Cuba as it is in the States, and Americans may be surprised to learn that Cuba brings the amateur world baseball champions to the Pan Am competition. (Professional sports were abolished after the revolution and no admission is charged to attend games.)
The Pan Am baseball team is favored to win the gold a fifth straight time, and at the end of this quadrennial event, Cuban athletes could cart home more medal hardware than any other visiting nation.
Cuba finished second in total medals to the United States at the last two Pan American Games, at San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1979, and Caracas, Venezuela, in 1983, and is expected to do well this time in boxing, volleyball, track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, and weight lifting, as well as baseball, of course.
In a sense, Cuba is the Caribbean counterpart to East Germany, a high-yield sports factory that seeks to create a positive image for itself through athletic achievement. The two countries are enough alike in outlook and ideology that they periodically run joint training sessions, and Soviet expertise is tapped as well. When US journalists were invited to tour the country this spring, the East German and Cuban women's volleyball teams were playing practice games in Havana's Sports City, a sprawling complex of athletic fields and factory buildings. The Coliseum's seats were empty except for a huge poster of Ch'e Guevara, a hero of the revolution, mounted like a political icon in the upper deck.
Cubans are looking ahead to the 1991 Pan American Games, which will be in Havana, with some events farmed out to Santiago, on the other side of the island. The goal is for Cuba to win medals in all 27 sports, including swimming, where it has traditionally been weak.
Cubans are acutely aware of this seeming paradox - that Cuba is an island nation with no noted swimmers. Its scenic beaches and tropical climate make recreational swimming popular, but so far little has been done to develop world-class racers. Now, however, a concerted effort is being made to change that and begin siphoning off some of the numerous medals awarded in this sport. Plans call for the construction of eight more covered pools in Havana during the next five years, wider use of the 180 public pools throughout the country, and a focus on serious training.