ATLANTA — At an Olympic baseball press conference earlier this week, Cuba and the United States met head on, not contentiously, but in a friendly verbal exchange. It was a classic of civility, the kind that governments cannot always achieve but the Olympics often seem more capable of fostering.
Filling the post-game interview room at Fulton County Stadium, were a horde of American journalists, eager to question Cuba's coach, silver-haired Jorge Fuentes, and three of his expressionless players.
Cuba had just put the finishing touches on a 10-8 victory over the home country "Yanquis." The game had its chippy moments as well as numerous bursts of overt nationalism. Most in the near-capacity crowd chanted "U-S-A" and waved American flags, while behind the third-base dugout an equally enthusiastic band of Cuban loyalists cheered their Big Red Machine.
This is about the extent of raw politicism at the Olympics these days, and after a few warm-up questions, someone asked Fuentes if US-Cuban diplomatic tensions made the game anymore significant to the visitors.
"Absolutely," he replied without hesitation.
And what did the outcome mean in Cuba?
"One additional victory," Fuentes shot back. This victory, however, would be cause for rejoicing in Havana, where partying was surely breaking out in the streets. The red-clad Cubans, after all, own a winning streak that runs to 124, 132, or 141 games, depending on whose figures for international tournament results are to be believed. To many Americans, they are the Soviet hockey team of the post-cold- war era.
Fuentes was holding court as he handled the Q&A exchanges with ease, candor, and just the right touch of wry humor. If Cuba and the US reach Friday's gold medal game, as is expected, "it will be the top attraction of the Olympics," said Cuban third baseman Omar Linares.
US coach Skip Bertman and several American sluggers followed. Bertman said that in a series of games, his team would stand no chance against the well-seasoned Cubans, but in a single contest, victory was possible. He grants that the Cuba-US rivalry has more of a political flavor than generally exists in today's Olympic environment, but that mutual respect prevails.
The Centennial Games can point to other head-to-head matchups where past differences or current political tensions have been suppressed for the sake of harmonious sports competition. Croatia and Yugoslavia met in water polo, India played Pakistan in men's field hockey, and American and Chinese swimmers have raced in the same pool despite turbulence before the Games. These competitions and others with political undertones have basically passed without incident.
In March, it's worth noting, the United States Olympic Committee entered into an exchange program with the Chinese Olympic Committee in which both parties agreed "to contribute to the development of the international sports movement while applying the Olympic principles...."
More significant is the presence of athletes from a record 197 countries in Atlanta, a testament to the power of the Games.
Sam Ramsamy, president of the South African Olympic committee, has said that "in modern society, sport is the opiate that can make people forget their differences." This once was beautifully realized at the 1936 Nazi-tinged Berlin Olympics in which Jesse Owens and German long jumper Luz Long, the top finishers, became lasting pen pals. Owens would later write: "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long."
In various ways, peace among countries seems to have broken out here. On the occasion of the Games' centennial, this is fitting, given that many of the delegates to an 1894 Congress for the Re-Establishment of the Olympic Games were members of the newly formed International Peace Movement. These founding fathers called for a renewal of the ancient tradition of an Olympic truce, whereby hostilities ceased and competitors came to the Games in neutral Olympia unharmed.
One of the ironies of the 100 percent Olympic attendance in Atlanta is that Jimmy Carter, who called for a US boycott of the 1980 Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, worked behind the scenes to make this the most inclusive Games ever.
Among the participants are Palestinians who have been well received despite the PLO-led terrorist murders of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. This time, two Palestinians swapped pins with an Israeli at the opening ceremony. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on a baseball diamond Cubans and Americans are turning their swords into bats.