Of the athletic heroes and heroines who emerged during the first week of Pan Am competition, none was more startling than Silvia Poll, a tall, reedy 16-year-old swimmer from Costa Rica. "I time her in practice lately and I think my watch is broken," said Poll's coach, Francisco Rivas, last Friday. "But it is right. What times, Silvia!"
The 6'2" Poll took to the pool for five individual events in Indianapolis and won three, tying a Pan Am record for women's swimming gold medals and making herself a top prospect for the 1988 Olympics in both the backstroke and freestyle sprints. "She's so big and strong," said U.S. cocaptain Scott Brackett. "She's just—boom!—off the blocks and away, and nobody can catch her."
Amidst intermittent jolts of political controversy, Poll seemed the perfect heroine. Born in Nicaragua of West German parents who owned a cotton-processing business, she and her family fled the country in 1979 because of the Sandinista-led revolution. Now an enthusiastic Costa Rican, she bristled at the suggestion that to develop her talent fully she might need to leave her unheated training pool in the capital city of San Josè and come to the U.S. Even though the best of the U.S. swimmers were at the Pan Pacific competition in Brisbane, Australia, leaving a less than top-notch team at Indy, Poll's winning times of 56.39 and 2:00.02 in the 100 and 200 frees, respectively, were superb. They would have won at the U.S long course nationals at Fresno, Calif., two weeks ago. "Maybe the Americans ought to come to Costa Rica to train," she sniffed.
Poll's victories in the 100 and 200 frees and in the 100 back, along with five other medals in individual and relay events, produced Costa Rica's first medals ever in swimming. They also earned Poll a call from the wife of Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez, frontpage coverage in her country's newspapers and a special visit from two national cabinet ministers who flew up specifically to watch her final two days of competition. Unfazed by boisterously patriotic U.S. swimmers who steamrollered their way to 27 gold medals in 32 swimming events (and even painted their toenails the colors of Old Glory), Poll became a symbol of the underdog, the smaller country trying to hold its own against the mighty U.S. "I told her, 'When you see the Americans, always keep your chin high,' " said Rivas.
August 23, 1987
That same spirit prevailed among the largest contingent of Cuban athletes to compete on U.S. soil since Fidel Castro became Cuba's leader in 1959. Not since the '59 Pan Am Games in Chicago had Cuba sent a team to a multisport competition in the U.S., and this one stepped straight into a political hornets' nest. "This country is promising us protection," said Cuban weightlifting trainer Gabriel Gonzalez, "but we are ready to protect ourselves."
At times that became necessary. At least three anti-Castro groups sent representatives to Indianapolis to kick up trouble during the games, and Soldier of Fortune magazine handed out 10,000 leaflets promising $25,000 in gold to the first Cuban or Nicaraguan security or intelligence agent to defect. "In the opening parade there were people behind us screaming and throwing papers with telephone numbers to call if we wanted to defect," said weightlifter Francisco Allegues. "We did not accept them. It offended us."
At a baseball game between Cuba and the Netherlands Antilles, a group called Cuba Independientely Democratica tossed political leaflets in front of the Cuban dugout, prompting a fierce argument and a brief fistfight between group members and Cuban players, at least one of whom wanted to climb into the stands with a bat. A more violent brawl broke out in the stands at the Convention Center during Friday night's boxing when alleged Cuban nationals got into a disagreement with Cuban security police and members of the Cuban boxing team. Two people were badly bloodied, and one man was arrested.
The tension was greatest at a middleweight weightlifting competition involving new U.S. citizen Roberto Urrutia, a Cuban defector now living in Hollywood, Fla. A three-time world champion for Cuba, Urrutia defected in 1980 while in Mexico and was still being called a "traitor" by members of the Cuban team in Indianapolis. Two of his former teammates, Pablo Lara and Allegues, defeated him handily. The day after the competition Castro himself sent a congratulatory telegram to Lara and Allegues that read: "You taught an exemplary lesson to the traitor who became a citizen of the empire to compete against his own people.... [You] have shown that the imperialists' money is worthless when facing dignity and high principles."
The Cuban controversy, however disruptive, didn't overshadow some bright and even poignant moments of competition. Diver Greg Louganis swept the platform and springboard titles for an unprecedented third consecutive time. Olympic gold medal gymnast Tim Daggett, trying to recover from a career-threatening fall from the horizontal bar last February that ruptured a disk and left him with severe nerve damage throughout his left side and upper back, fought through his pain to help the U.S. defeat the defending-champion Cubans in the men's team competition, an event the Americans hadn't won at a Pan Am Games since 1975.
Out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, brothers Dante and Tony Muse of Des Moines led a U.S. team in furious speed-roller-skating races on a 400-meter course laid out with pylons on the pavement just past Turn 4. The skaters sped down the track traveling up to 35 miles per hour, weaving in and out, holding on for dear life around the curves, while grabbing, pulling and shoving each other. Tony Muse, who swore that foreign skaters were teaming up against him and the other Americans, affected perhaps the games' most intimidating look. He skated wearing dark glasses and a skull-and-crossbones decal on his helmet.
At the elegant Circle Theater, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, nine of the Cuban weightlifters won gold medals and the 10th earned three silvers.
Superheavyweight Mario Martinez saved the U.S. from being shut out of weightlifting gold medals by winning all three—snatch, clean-and-jerk and total—in his division. His one regret afterward was that Cuba hadn't sent a lifter in the superheavyweight class. He wanted the competition. All things considered, that was probably the most refreshing notion of the week.