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PAN AMERICAN GAMES : U.S. Should Win Race for Gold (Not That Anyone’s Counting)

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pan American Games race that no one talks about but everyone watches is getting closer, and it appears that the United States will pass Cuba in the gold medal count Saturday.

Ever since Alberto Cuba won the marathon, the Games’ first event on Aug. 3, Cuba has won the bulk of the gold medals. Now, while U.S. officials have spent a week downplaying the significance of the medal race, they can’t resist noticing that Americans are gaining ground.

Cuba leads the United States in gold medals, 118-115, but when the swimming competition resumes today after a day off Thursday, the United States is expected to overtake Cuba. U.S. Olympic Committee officials estimate that Americans will win at least 12 of the remaining 17 gold medals in swimming.

The U.S. resurgence is not difficult to figure out. Cubans dominated the early events--for example, limiting a weak U.S. track team to nine gold medals.

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Last week’s weightlifting was a gold mine for Cuba. In the first Pan American Games in which they have entered a full team, the Cubans won 29 of 30 gold medals in weightlifting, the sport that offers the most medals. For the first time in the Games’ history, Americans failed to win a weightlifting event.

The United States had its isolated early success, such as winning every archery event, but it was nearly impossible to overcome the Cuban weightlifting bonanza.

But with swimming under way, the United States has begun to pile up the gold medals. U.S. dominance of the sport can hardly be overstated: American athletes have won 203 gold medals in swimming since 1959, the first Games.

The next most successful country, Canada, has won 18.

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Cuba will lose ground dramatically here; it won only its fourth swimming medal ever this week.

However, a projection through Sunday’s final events shows that the gold medal count will be close. Such predictions are something sports officials from various countries say they don’t want to talk about but always end up getting around to.

Asked last week to explain the drubbing of the United States by Cuba in such events as canoe-kayak, USOC President Robert Helmick noted that the best American athletes are not competing here.

“The Pan American Games are not the competition by which the level of our sports system should be judged,” Helmick said.

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Then he added: “I think we’ll win the gold medal race.”

Counting medals was long ago determined to be rudely chauvinistic in Olympic competition, but countries find it difficult to stop the practice.

As a case in point, take Jose Ramon Fernandez Alvarez, chairman of the Pan American Games Organizing Committee (COPAN), who said at a news conference Thursday that he didn’t want to get into the Cuban-U.S. medal race.

“I’ve been asked to make these projections before. I’ve always refused to do this. It’s like I said in my closing statement at the opening ceremony, ‘Let the best win.’ That shall be the case in the Pan American Games.

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“This is not a race between Cuba and the USA, or versus any other country.”

Someone asked a question on another subject, but Fernandez had more to say on the topic he said he wanted to avoid: “What will be the final position of Cuba and the United States? I can speculate that Cuba will obtain about 130 gold medals.”

It is certainly within the bounds of reality. As the United States should gain ground in swimming during the last three days of competition, Cuba is expected to win 10 of 12 gold medals in boxing. The United States may win one.

As far as the gold medal count is concerned, the winner may not be decided until the final events Sunday. In fact, USOC officials are saying that rhythmic gymnastics may make or break U.S. chances. There are six gold medals available, and Americans are projected to win four.

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If the United States loses the gold medal race, no doubt second-guessing will take over. What if the U.S. water polo team, fresh from its landmark victory in the World Championships, had not lost to Cuba? What about the collapse of men’s and women’s basketball? Where was volleyball?

What about tennis, a sport the United States has usually dominated? Because of injuries and players leaving to prepare for the U.S. Open, the United States did not enter the team competition, which it could have easily won.

Or if Cuba ends up one gold medal ahead, will it be the fault of Mexico? In a move that is inconsistent with previous Pan American Games, Cuban officials awarded the gold medal in rowing to the second-place Cuban team, after Mexican sculler Jose Antonio Gomez tested positive for drugs.

In such circumstances at previous Games, the medal has been vacated, not awarded to the next-place athlete. Wednesday’s decision gave Cuba one more gold medal.

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But who’s counting?


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