If the day ever existed when athletes had to take a virtual vow of poverty to compete in the Pan American Games, it has clearly passed. The Pan American Sports Organization, the governing body for the games, doesn't offer prize money - but that hardly means that the competition here is purely amateur.
Take the Brazilian soccer team, for example. It is composed of professional players, who have a cash incentive for winning the gold medal. Their national soccer federation reportedly has a tiered bonus plan in effect that will pay each player $1,000 if the team reaches tomorrow's semifinals, and up to $5,000 for a victory in Friday's final.
Money was certainly an issue with Argentina's men's basketball team, which left some top players home due to a disagreement over bonus money. After winning the South American title, team members were under the impression that they each were owed $1,000 by Argentina's basketball federation. When they got only $850, several upset players walked out.
Coach Flor Mel'endez offered to make up the difference out of his own pocket, but the players had no beef with Mel'endez and rejected his offer. They apparently had a change of heart, but it came too late to satisfy disgruntled officials, who replaced them on the national squad with junior team members.
That pretty much deflated the Argentines, who had been the only ones to defeat the United States at last summer's world championships. After that preliminary defeat, however, the US went on to win the gold, and overpowered Argentina here in round-robin play, 85-58.
For American athletes, the financial rewards sometimes come in the form of endorsement money, which can be substantial in the case of an athlete like track and field star Carl Lewis.
At a press conference he was asked about switching from Nike to Japanese-made Mizuno footwear. His agent says no deals are cut for less than $250,000 a year. Carl, more vague, says, ``The important thing is that I have shoes to wear and that I'm doing quite well ...''
The trust-fund concept has made this sort of thing possible by temporarily limiting an athlete to how much cold, hard cash he can get his hands on for current living expenses.
In some cases, of course, athletes adopt a very comfortable living standard. Like Lewis, cyclist Mark Gorski has also capitalized on being an Olympic champion, a fact apparent in a story on his French-style Indianapolis home in a local paper.
Gorski has done some work for a local contractor, and his wife, Mary, owns an antique furniture store, but he obviously has done very well as an endorser of cycling equipment through deals arranged by an agent. He calls these post-Olympic contracts ``a phenomenon of American amateur sports,'' and says the bonanza is ``100 percent attributable to winning the gold [in the '84 Olympic match sprint].'' Pitcher leader of US pack
One of the greatest thrills any athlete can experience is that of leading an entire national delegation at an event like the Pan Am Games. The honor is not treated lightly, and is generally bestowed upon only the most inspiring individuals.
Here in Indianapolis, baseball pitcher Jim Abbott was selected to carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies. He was the choice of representatives of all the US Pan Am teams.
Abbott has never let having only one hand, his left, prevent him from becoming not only a strong thrower, but a good fielder as well. If he were a defensive liability, the Toronto Blue Jays wouldn't have drafted him in 1983. He elected to play college ball first, however, and this year, as a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan, posted an 11-3 record. He also compiled a 6-1 record with the Pan Am team during its pre-Games tour.
The highlight came against Cuba's world champions in Havana, where 55,000 turned out to see the opening game of a series. The first batter Abbott faced was speedster Victor Mesa, who hit a very high chopper down the third base line. Jim didn't have time to make his usual glove switch, so he basically barehanded the ball. ``I waited for it to come down and threw him out,'' he recalls. ``It was a bang-bang play. I guess the crowd cheered for four or five minutes. That broke the ice.'' Abbott got the victory, 8-3, and a lot of new admirers to boot. And last week he picked up his first Pan Am ``W'' with a victory over Venezuela.
Though his situation is different from other players', the way Abbott plays the game seems totally natural to him. That's why he doesn't draw any particular inspiration from the example of Pete Gray, who managed to become a major league outfielder with the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s despite having just one arm. Touching other bases
The Cuban team received permission to bypass politically volatile Miami and fly directly to Indianapolis via charter, but anti-Castro groups have still managed to make their presence felt here. Several relatively minor incidents occurred last week, including a scuffle among spectators at a baseball game, alerting organizers and city officials to the need for tighter security. ``We are going to make sure Cuban athletes have the right and privilege to compete in the absence of confrontation,'' said Mark Miles, president of the local organizing committee.