Cuba's open secret: Fidel-ity to sports

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Whatever waves Cuba makes aquatically in Indianapolis will be generated by a strong men's water polo team and breast stroke swimmer Pedro Hern'andez, who is no Mark Spitz, but is considered a bona fide medal threat.

Cuba's calculated emergence in sports raises what was a very low Olympic profile from 1904 until the last two decades. A gold-medal drought of 68 years was broken in 1972, when a trio of Cuban boxers struck gold, including heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who emerged as a powerful John Henry sort of figure in the ring.

Stevenson, who retired several weeks ago, retained his Olympic title in 1976 and '80 and became, with track man Alberto Juantorena, a superstar who symbolized Cuba's athletic rebirth.

Juantorena, who once dedicated his Olympic victories to Castro, achieved the unprecedented feat of winning both the 400- and 800-meter races at the same Montreal Olympic Games in 1976. Today he administers Cuba's highly organized physical education and recreation programs from the elementary through junior college levels.

Even in street clothes, he is a striking, broad-shouldered figure sitting behind his desk in an office at Sports City. The seven phones within his reach, including a red one he jokingly calls a White House hot line, hint at his position of authority.

Juantorena tries to play down the impression by pointing out that three of the phones are disconnected. Still, the rewards of loyalty to the state and high achievement in its name are apparent. Among the perks of his job are two Soviet -made Lada automobiles, which aren't fancy, but certainly a luxury by Cuban standards, especially since a driver is assigned to whisk him around in one of the cars. His responsibilities are wide-ranging in a country that strives to cultivate broad sports participation through mandatory physical education.

``One of the fundamental objectives of the revolution is massive sport,'' a Cuban sportswriter observes.

Castro himself has made physical fitness a priority item. He no longer smokes, and has inspired a health consciousness that has senior citizens stretching on street corners.

To fuel its mass sports culture, Cuba needs instructors - lots of them. Many are trained at the Higher Institute of Physical Culture, a 1,400-student university in Sports City that weaves Marxist-Leninist philosophy into its curriculum. There is no tuition, and world-class athletes who attend can work out schedules that permit them to train and compete while their living expenses are covered by the state.

Cuban national teams have competed against US teams both in Cuba and in the States. The cold-war attitude between the two countries, however, is the fundamental reason that Cuba boycotted the '84 Los Angeles Olympics. ``Members of the Cuban delegation may have been attacked or kidnapped,'' says Juantorena.

The US trade embargo of Cuba has cut off a valuable supply line of top-quality American sports equipment and inspired the Cubans to make most of their own. The factory in Havana, which is operated by the Institute for Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation, the national sports governing body, makes everything from rowing shells and baseballs to chess pieces and parts for stadium lights. Some products, such as ice-hockey jerseys, are even marketed in Canada.

Politically, the US and Cuba remain worlds apart, a fact reflected in US support of Seoul's '88 Olympic plans and Cuba's threatened boycott unless North Korea's alternative plan for sharing the games is accepted.

With the specter of another lost Olympic opportunity blowing in the wind, the Cuban athletes don't have to be reminded of the importance of the Pan Am Games as a showcase for their talents. They are in Indianapolis to enjoy the fun and goodwill, but unlike some other competitors, they have left home ``ready to win.''

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