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RUNNING ON EMPTY

July 29, 1991
July 29, 1991

Table of Contents
July 29, 1991

Books
British Open
Cal Ripken Jr.
Olympic Festival
Keith Millard
TV And Baseball
Track & Field
Inside
Focus
Point After

RUNNING ON EMPTY

Cuba maintains a rich sports tradition despite shortages of everything but pride

Hey do the wave in Cuba.

This is an article from the July 29, 1991 issue Original Layout

That is just one of the many things visitors will discover during the Pan American Games, Aug. 2-18. Cuba is at once defiant and friendly, somber and vibrant. Even though every third sign reads SOCIALISMO O MUERTE, Cubans still embrace many things American: movies (the works of Francis Ford Coppola), cars (the De Sotos, etc., left over from pre-Revolution days) and the Wave.

And yet, as the fans at a recent World Volleyball League match between the Netherlands and Cuba demonstrated, Cubans can turn such hand-me-downs into their own creations. Their ola is more up-tempo than ours, giddier. Even the forbidding mural of Che Guevara that dominates the Ciudad Deportiva (Che Stadium?) seemed to rise with the Wave.

That's not all the fans in Cuba do. At one point in the match, after Joel Despaigne, one of the best players in the world, spiked a ball through the Dutch defense to give Cuba a decisive lead, one section of the arena began counting the Netherlands out—in English, "one, two, three..."—in the manner of a boxing referee. It's a neat little trick, and it made an American in Havana wonder, What else have we been missing all these years?

Cubans lack for certain things—foodstuffs, fuel, foreign friends—but pride is not one of them. While the Pan Am Games may seem a waste of the country's resources, they are also a way for Cuba to win back some of those friends in the Americas. The fact that the government has chosen sports as its vehicle for survival is not surprising, given Cuba's rich athletic tradition. Sports in Cuba is, as decreed by Fidel Castro, a right of the people. (No admission is ever charged to a sporting event, although foreigners will have to pay for their tickets to the Pan Am Games.) It has always been used to promote diplomacy abroad and health at home. But Cuban sports is more than just an ideal or a tool for propaganda.

It is the Barrientos Games, a track and field meet named for Cuban track star Josè Barrientos, that was held at the Estadio Tropical in May. There were as many competitors as spectators, most of whom came to see two of Cuba's and the world's best: Ana Quirot, the 800-meter runner, and Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump. When Quirot, who looks not unlike a sorceress, was told she had to have a number pinned to the back of her suit—as if people didn't know who she was—she gave the meet official a look that might have transformed him into a dog. When she easily outdistanced her rivals without breaking a sweat, trailing the field was this little gray dog.

As for Sotomayor, he also won easily. When he finished packing up his gear, he picked up the three-year-old son of another athlete. Sotomayor carried the boy over to the high-jump bar and took him through the motions of the jump before gently depositing him in the foam. No special reason. Just the world's greatest high jumper helping the next generation of Cuban athletes over the bar.

Cuban sports is the XXIX Torneo Nacional de la Aguja Hemingway, a fishing tournament in the village of Cojímar, outside Havana. A lively two-day affair featuring salsa bands and children's relay races, the tournament was officially hosted by the minister of sports, Alberto Juantorena, the Olympic 400-and 800-meter gold medalist in 1976. The unofficial host, though, was an old man—not the old man—named Gregorio Fuentes. Gregorio was the guide that day on the trip to Paradise Key, where Hemingway saw the fisherman who inspired one of his greatest works. According to Gregorio, now 94, "Papa came back to the boat and said, 'I have a novel that they will make into a movie. I need something to write on.' So I lent him my paper and pen. When he had finished, he was very pleased. But he was also troubled. 'Gregorio, I don't know what to call it,' he said. 'Yes, you do,' I said. 'Where did this story take place? On the sea. And the fisherman was an old man, no?' "

Cuban sports is the Estadio Nelson Fernàndez in San Josè de las Lajas, where the national baseball team is practicing. "Say hello to Jimmy Abbott for me," says third baseman Omar Linares, a veteran of many games against U.S. amateur teams. "And Robin Ventura."

"Tell them we're ready to play in the big leagues," says centerfielder Víctor Mesa.

But Cuban sports is also Josè Ramón Fernàndez, a hero of the Bay of Pigs and the president of the Pan Am Games organizing committee, explaining why baseball players from Cuba won't be allowed to compete in the major leagues. "It is not right to earn money with sports," says Fernàndez. "The spirit of competition is more important than money. Winning is reward enough."

Cuban sports is Gilberto Dihigo, a sports journalist, toasting his father, Negro League star and Hall of Famer Martín Dihigo, on the 20th anniversary of his death. "Would you like to see some pictures of him?" asks Gilberto. Of course, and there his father is, standing proud and slightly apart from his teammates in New York and Veracruz and Havana. Among the pictures, one name catches the eye: Cocaína García. "A very famous pitcher," says Gilberto. "They say his curveball had the effect of a drug on the batter."

Cuban sports is the Provincial School for Gymnastics, housed in the magnificent building that was once the Spanish Businessmen's Club in Havana. There, among the ornate columns and gilded molding, coaches nurture gymnasts through their exercises. "It is hard not to be inspired in a place like this," says Renè Sansón, a coach who is himself a former national champion. Then he turns to watch his most famous pupil, 12-year-old Annia Portuondo, on the vault. Soaring through the air, Annia is at home among the arches. She is the national women's champion but will be too young to compete in the 1992 Olympics, which is a shame, because she is someone the world should see.

At the other end of the spectrum of Cuban sports is Fèlix Savón, a devastating heavyweight and, some say, the heir to Teófilo Stevenson, Cuba's super heavyweight gold medalist in the 1972, '76 and '80 Olympics. Sitting on a porch at the boxing complex outside of Havana, Savón recalls the night he decided to become a boxer. "The sports school wanted me to begin training as a fighter, but my mother did not want me to. She said, 'Don't come home if you want to box.' That night I sat in a held, trying to decide what to do. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was a boxer." Then something dawns on Savón. "It must have been like that for Fidel, the nights he spent in the mountains before the Revolution."

Cuban sports is still very much Fidel. A sign outside Cerro Pelado, the "Colorado Springs of Cuba," proclaims: FIDEL ATLETA N√öMERO UNO. One of Castro's many nicknames in Cuba is El Caballo (The Horse), because he carries the fortunes of his nation. Similarly, the success of Cuban sports rides on his love for athletics. According to legend, he was once scouted as a pitcher by Joe Cambria of the Washington Senators, so one can imagine how different the world would have been had Castro become another Camilo Pascual.

Over the years Castro's passion for baseball has given way to an infatuation with the NBA, thanks to a satellite dish given to him by his duck-hunting companion, Ted Turner. But Castro still got a kick out of the baseball cards given to him by a U.S. Olympic delegation last spring. His pack contained a card of Jose Canseco, born in Havana in 1964.

It's Pollyannaish to think that the old first baseman George Bush might someday want to talk baseball with Castro. That's not likely, not as long as anger and distrust are the official policies of both governments. (Cuba was not allowed to buy bowling equipment from the U.S. last year, perhaps on the theory that the bowling balls could be loaded into cannons—Remember the Maine.)

So far and yet so near. On a wall behind the stands at the Estadio Tropical is a brass plaque, its inscription made nearly indecipherable by grime and tarnish. Upon close inspection, the plaque's message is one of friendship, an elaborate thank-you note to the Tropical Brewing Company for erecting this magnificent stadium in 1930. It's signed by Chuck Klein, Rabbit Maranville, Heinie Manush, Paul Waner, Pie Traynor and a dozen other major leaguers who played in Cuba. Maybe it's time to polish the plaque.

PHOTOGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESLike this lonely pole vaulter at the Barrientos Games, a meet named for a track star of the '30 (poster), in Havana's Estadio Tropical, Cuba is about to attempt a leap upward as the host of the 11th Pan American Games.SEVEN PHOTOSGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESViews of Cuban sports: Cuba gets spiked by the Netherlands; Portuondo arches among the arches; sprinters burst from the blocks; javelin thrower limbers up; an angler hooks a trophy; wrestlers practice; a pitcher throws BP.SIX PHOTOSGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESSavón grins in front of heroes Stevenson and El Caballo; a gymnast gets a helping hand; a boxer puts on his fight face; the catch of the day; a sprinter smiles on a spring night; a real caballo trains at the Lenin equestrian center.SIX PHOTOSGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESWrestlers on the ropes; gymnasts on the beam; Quirot (243) poses with teammate Nancy MacLeon; grapplers wrestle with antiquated equipment; a young runner shows off her medal; old man Fuentes at the tournament named after his friend.THREE PHOTOSGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESCoaches oversee practice; Che oversees the Netherlands-Cuba match; juantorena opens the Torneo Hemingway.PHOTOGIANFRANCO GORGONI/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESAt Cerro Pelado-the Colorado springs of Cuba-a glistening weightlifter, like his countrymen, shoulders a heavy burden.