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PAN AMERICAN GAMES : Medal Total Is Music to Cuban Ears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If, as former great Cuban athlete Alberto Juantorena says, “sport is the melody of our revolution,” then it is the chorus, the country’s athletes, who are producing the sweetest sounds heard here since Dizzy Gillespie played the Tropicana.

For 18 hours each day, the one channel available to those who have television sets brings news from Havana and Santiago de Cuba of one victory after another for Cuban athletes at the Pan American Games.

Through the sixth day of competition Thursday, Cuba had won 65 gold medals, as many as the other 38 North, South and Central American and Caribbean countries combined.

The United States, which had 44 gold medals, finally moved into the lead Thursday in overall medals with 128--to 113 for Cuba--but even that is a race the norteamericanos cannot win, as far as the people here are concerned.

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In accordance with President Fidel Castro’s own method of determining the standings in order of medals won per capita, the media here list Cuba, with a population of fewer than 10 million, in first place by an overwhelming margin. The United States, with a population of more than 225 million, lags far behind.

“According to population, we have the world’s best athletes,” said the president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, Manuel Gonzalez Guerra.

That once was a title claimed by East Germany, a country of fewer than 17 million that emerged as an international sports superpower, holding its own with the Soviet Union and the United States. Now, it appears as if Cuba has developed its own “Miracle Machine,” which might never completely fill the void left when East Germany reunified with West Germany, but could earn Cuba the reputation as another little country that could.

In separate interviews, Gonzalez Guerra and Juantorena denied that their country aspires to become recognized as another East Germany, but there is no question that the system of producing elite athletes established by the Cuban government in 1961, two years after the revolution, is similar to the ones developed a decade earlier in the Soviet Union and East Germany.

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Through physical education classes that begin in kindergarten, exceptional athletes are identified and, at ages when it is determined that specialized training is required for their designated sports, assigned to sports schools. There are 16 such schools, one for each province and the Isle of Pines. According to Gonzalez Guerra, education, as well as physical training, is stressed.

“Our system is like a pyramid,” said Juantorena, a gold medalist in the 1976 Summer Games in the 400 and 800 meters who now is a vice president of the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). “Kids climb the various steps of the pyramid until they either do or do not become top-flight athletes.”

Those who become members of various national teams are based in Havana, where they can continue their studies alongside future coaches at the Manuel Fajardo Higher Institute of Physical Culture. Of Cuba’s 28,000 coaches, most have degrees from that institute.

Postgraduate athletes who belong to national teams are paid by the government, earning $66 to $160 a month, depending on ability and marital status. They receive an additional $30 a month for each child. They are allowed to rent apartments for about $12 a month, but cars generally are not provided, except to stars upon retirement.

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It is considered a good, if not exactly luxurious, life by Cuban standards. When super-heavyweight boxer Jorge Gonzalez, the Pan American Games gold medalist in 1983 and 1987, was dethroned as national champion, he defected to the United States to avoid the inevitable decline in his lifestyle.

Gonzalez Guerra, 75, was active in sports before the revolution in 1959, when he said that the best sports organizations discriminated against blacks and mixed-race athletes. He also said that upper-class children went to private schools, which had well-funded athletic programs, but that there was less money for sports in public schools.

Nor was there government support for athletes who wanted to compete internationally, he said, recalling that they often had to raise money through raffles to pay for expenses.

“It all changed with Fidel,” he said. “He was a great athlete, and he was the one who decided that sports would be a priority in our country.”

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Painted on the wall in the Sports City Coliseum here is the slogan: “Sports is the Right of the People--Fidel.”

Gonzalez Guerra and Juantorena said that their sports system differs from those in East Germany and the Soviet Union in that it does not merely pay lip service to the importance of physical activity for all.

A billboard in Havana has a sequence of photographs of a man jogging, becoming thinner with each one.

“Try It,” it says.

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“The goal after the Pan American Games is to get all of the venues we have built and improved into the hands of the people, so that they can be used by the masses,” Juantorena said.

As for the goal during the Pan American Games, it is to win medals.

Cuba is expected to easily surpass its total of four years ago at Indianapolis, where it finished second with 75 gold medals and 175 overall. The United States won a record 168 gold medals and 369 overall.

“We are much more focused on these games, not only because they are in Cuba but also because we are preparing for (the 1992 Summer Olympics in) Barcelona,” Gonzalez Guerra said. “Four years ago, we already knew that we would not be in (South) Korea for the Olympics the next year, so we were not as motivated.”

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Gonzalez Guerra predicted that Cuba will finish fifth or sixth in the medal count at Barcelona.

Juantorena said that Cuba might have progressed even further in sports had it not been for an economic crisis that has made it difficult for the government to send athletes to all international competition.

Otherwise, he said, athletes have been exempt from the sacrifices that other citizens have had to make during a period of shortages in food, oil and other staples caused, he said, by the U.S. economic blockade and the collapse of Eastern Bloc. He defended the athletes’ continued privileges by saying that sports have instilled “satisfaction and pride” in the people.

“You can see how healthy our sports system is by our results here,” he said.

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He also acknowledged that Cuban fans are aware that their athletes might have been less successful here if the United States had sent its best athletes in sports such as track and field, swimming, boxing and gymnastics.

“We will not be carried away by fantasy,” he said. “But if the United States brings a team here that is not properly prepared, that is its problem, its loss. The record book is objective. It will not be written that we won because the United States did not bring its best athletes.”


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