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U.S. Refuses to Be Treated as Second-Place Citizens

Lacy Barnes, a discus flinger from Fresno, was addressing the strained relationship between her country and Cuba when she said: “Change is slow, so it’s going to take some time for things to evolve into a more kosher situation.”

Since every word spoken by an American here is translated, re-translated, dissected and analyzed, this being Cuba, a Spanish-speaking interpreter turned to her and asked:

“A what situation?”

“A better situation,” Barnes said.

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Up to now, there have not been any international incidents at the Pan American Games, with both the Pans and the Americans being on their best behavior and with Bobby Knight not being the basketball coach.

But little things make everybody nervous.

For example, take what happened to Chryste Gaines when she ran second the other day in the women’s 100-meter dash.

Fidel Castro--who is everywhere, enhancing our theory that there are actually nine of him, in duplicate beards and costumes--came around afterward to present the medals. Fidel is good at presenting medals. It’s one of his best things.

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The winner of the race, a Cuban, bent forward from the top of the podium to receive from El Presidente her ribboned medallion and a smooch on the cheek.

On the next-highest pedestal stood little Chryste Gaines of Lawton, Okla., waving a teensy U.S. flag. Some other guy standing beside Fidel draped the silver medal around her.

In third place was a Latin American woman, not Cuban. Up popped Fidel again to present the medal and play kissy-face.

Lacy Barnes said: “I noticed that and I did think: ‘Hmmm . . . ‘ “

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She is 26 and this is her first Pan Am Games, so Barnes wasn’t positive she had seen somebody being insulted.

But the immediate reaction of Earl Bell, a pole vaulter whose Pan Am experiences date to 1975, was to say: “You don’t have to be a genius. I think Castro had a hard time shaking hands with someone who had an American flag in her hand.”

There is only one thing wrong with this theory.

Castro did shake her hand.

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Shortly before the three women descended from the podium, Fidel, looking for all the world like someone as sensitive to making a gaffe as any American would be in his position, returned to Gaines’ side and extended his hand, which she shook.

No kiss, true, but that’s probably a thrill she could miss.

Anyway, no harm, no foul. Alberto Juantorena of the Cuban athletic federation assured U.S. counterparts that a mistake of protocol had been made, Castro being under the impression that he merely was to honor the winner. When the third-place medal was placed in his hand, Fidel found himself in something other than a, well, kosher situation.

Said U.S. track and field team leader Jose Rodriguez, who works for the governor’s office in Florida: “We’re satisfied that it was not a snub, but a miscommunication.”

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Particularly because Castro, a couple of days earlier, had personally presented a gold medal to Mike Herbert after the Arkansas kid won in kayak. During the national anthem, Fidel stood at attention and saluted.

So, enough with these conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done for Llewellyn Starks, an American who believes he got robbed in the long jump, and for Andre Cason, who wasn’t too thrilled with the way the 100 meters was run.

Starks was hopping mad after leaping a distance that would have earned him a gold medal. An official--a Cuban official--said he fouled.

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It sure didn’t look as if he had fouled, and it sure didn’t feel like it to Llewellyn, who said he wasn’t much interested in the silver medal, no matter who was hanging it around his neck or kissing his face.

Cason, who is quick in a Carl Lewis kind of way, felt pretty good coming out of the blocks. Cason’s rolling along, whistling a song, when an official--a Cuban official--calls a false start on another runner.

Twenty meters into the race.

His start was blown and so was his mind, Andre said. Track guys are sensitive, like Swiss watches. Timing is everything.

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Cason ultimately ran second, then bit his tongue rather than complain: “Why can’t we be united?” he instead lamented. “I truly believe that everybody is a good person at heart.”

While the Americans are wondering whether the Cubans are acting kosher, the Cubans are wondering why the Americans are doing rather poorly. When George Steinbrenner asks aloud why our best athletes aren’t here, the Cubans ask, too.

Wait a minute here, says Lacy Barnes.

“It makes me feel like chopped liver,” she said. “What am I? I’m No. 1. I’m going to Tokyo (for the world championships). I’m here to compete.

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“The trouble, as far as I can see, is that we don’t get much chance to evaluate the Cubans, just as they don’t get much chance to evaluate us. You say something rude, you’ll get a rude response. But I’ve also gotten lots and lots of smiles.

“You think America is so different? Ever been to New York?”


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