Cuba's participation looms as a key to success of Pan Am Games

The United States and Cuba are not exactly cordial neighbors, but sports officials in both countries want an olive branch, not a banana peel to symbolize their attempts at cooperation. In an effort to iron out details of Cuba's participation in this summer's 10th Pan American Games (Aug. 7-23), members of Indianapolis's host organizing committee visited here recently for a series of meetings and discussions.

The interchange was friendly and productive, yet one major issue remained unresolved, namely how the Cuban Pan Am contingent will travel to the Hoosier capital.

This is a sticky issue partly because of the size of the group that must be transported. The Cuban delegation wishing to attend this quadrennial, Olympic-style event, open to all nations in the Western Hemisphere, numbers 629 members, including 450 athletes. That's about five plane loads.

For the sake of convenience and cost, plus a desire to avoid politically volatile Miami if possible, the Cubans would like to charter flights directly to Indianapolis, rather than book commercial reservations that could route them through other Latin American countries.

So far permission hasn't been granted by US authorities, who must decide whether to accomodate the wishes of a country with which the United States hasn't enjoyed formal diplomatic relations for many years.

``The [Indianapolis] organizing committee will do its best to secure permission [for the chartered flights] from its government,'' said Mark Miles, president of a group known by the acronym, PAX/I, which is pronounced ``paxee'' and stands for the 10th Pan American Games-Indianapolis.

At least one person who apparently anticipates the political hurdles will be cleared is Cuban president Fidel Castro. Dressed in his familiar olive green army fatigues and cap, he met with a small group of US reporters and said, ``Difficulties are not to be expected. They are not logical.''

Not logical, of course, when the only consideration between two sports-loving nations is sport, which was basically all that the Cuban leader wanted to address. ``I think it would be dangerous if we talk politics and not sports,'' he stated. ``Politics are much more complex, but the present state of relations in sports [between the US and Cuba] is excellent.''

The political situation, of course, has deteriorated since the Castro-led regime came to power in 1959, which also happens to be the year Chicago was host to the only other Pan American Games held in the United States.

Few people remember anything about that competition, which was the third ever and a fairly forgettable event according Manuel Guerra, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee and a witness to many Pan Am Games. ``Chicago didn't leave its mark in history,'' he said, before singing the praises of the Indianapolis organizers, who he feels are capable of handling the most ambitious Pan Am Games to date.

All 38 nations that belong to PASO (the Pan American Sports Organization) are entered, which is twice as many countries as participated in the inaugural 1951 games, held in Buenos Aires.

The American public has traditionally not paid that much attention to this competition, which the United States dominates.

The people of Indianapolis, though, are going to great lengths to generate enthusiasm for the globe's largest non-Olympic sports event, which includes approximately as many sports as the Olympics.

CBS will carry 26 hours of coverage for American viewers, and in one of a number of country-by-country agreements, Cuba has arranged, at a price of $350,000, to pick up 100 hours of Pan Am action on both its state-owned TV and radio networks.

The Cubans obviously are as excited about their planned participation in the Games as PAX/I is eager to have them. In a very real sense, the two groups need each other.

The organizing committee wants the Cubans because they represent one of the few hemispheric rivals that can provide serious competition to Americans. Without this budding sports power, the competition would lose a lot.

Though Cuban officials have made a chartered flight a condition of their Pan Am participation, they are not really in the driver's seat on this issue either. That's because the thought of missing out on the Pan Am competition is unappealing as well as self-defeating.

The Cubans spend a significant amount of money to train world-class athletes, and don't want them stuck at home. Castro expressed regret about Cuba's boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when his country stayed away in a show of socialist solidarity.

Missing another major sports showcase would be a crushing blow for Cuban athletes, whose participation at the 1988 Seoul Olympics could be jeopardized by further political disputes, this time between North and South Korea.

Furthermore, Havana, which lost out in bidding for the '87 Pan Am Games to Indianapolis, is slated to host the 1991 competition. It would be setting a very bad example, therefore, to play hooky right before Cuba's turn comes up.

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