Morning hadn't yet broken on Saturday when 21 male marathoners set off in pursuit of the first medals of the 11th Pan American Games. Young lovers along Havana's Malecón, the broad boulevard that sweeps between the city and the sea, were still tangled up in one another's arms as Alberto Cuba came loping by at the head of the field. Cuba had led from the race's start, in the gracious Miramar diplomatic district, and continued to lead as the runners moved through the pocked and faded majesty of old Havana, where the buildings look like sand castles exposed too long to the tidal spray of indifference.
In the 90° heat of the early day, clusters of Cubans lined the route to cheer their countryman. Soon a coterie of bicyclists began to form alongside him. By the 19-mile mark, where Cuba left two Mexican challengers behind, the bike escort had swollen to 50.
It hardly seemed to matter that Brazil's Josè Carlos Santana da Silva would come within two seconds of catching Cuba at the finish in the Pan American Stadium. The stadium had been completed with only slightly more time than that to spare. Like Cuba el hombre, Cuba el país began in the dark, persevered through grueling conditions and as the Pan Am Games opened last week, breasted the tape flush with pride.
In 1986 the Cubans had taken up the challenge of staging these Games, before the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe left them without many of their most reliable trading partners and before President Fidel Castro instituted the strict rationing—of bread, chicken, pens, shoes, even underwear—that prevails in the capital. The Cubans nonetheless built 21 facilities from scratch and renovated another 46, despite a U.S. Treasury Department ruling that prohibited ABC Sports, which is televising the games along with TBS, from paying the Castro regime $6.5 million in desperately needed rights fees. "I'm dedicating my medal to the Cuban people who worked so hard to build these complexes," said Cuba, 29, who ran a 2:19:27 in only his third marathon. Among the dedicatees was Cuba's father, Alfredo, a construction worker, who promised to throw a party that night and gave his home address to journalists after well-wishers had hoisted his son onto their shoulders.
August 11, 1991
The athletes' village in Havana, home to almost 4,000 competitors from 39 countries, will eventually provide housing for the Cubans who spent two years building it. Thousands of citizens of all occupations donated their time to help construction crews meet the deadline. Those who worked the hardest received tickets to last Friday's opening ceremonies, which were doubly blessed by a spectacular horizon-to-horizon rainbow and by only a few sentences from Castro, a speech that several Cubans swore was the briefest of his life.
"The Games were a matter of honor for us," said Oscar Mesa, an English teacher who had spent many nights and weekends pitching in. "Honor is one thing Cubans have. If they say they are going to do something, they do it."
Members of the U.S. delegation attempted to match the Cubans' effort with one of their own—they tried not to act like ugly Americans. After discovering the absence of toilet seats in their rooms in the athletes' village, they soldiered bravely on. (Toilet paper they'd brought; toilet seats they'd not.) The U.S. athletes were careful to avoid the frat-party faux pas of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where their disorderly conduct during the opening ceremonies had scandalized the host South Koreans.
"We were told to march and wave and keep it at that," said Chris Roberts, an outfielder on the U.S. baseball team.
Only U.S. Olympic Committee vice-president George Steinbrenner, who despaired that the Americans hadn't sent a team certain to lead the medal count, and ABC's Brent Musburger, who moaned to his amanuensis, USA Today's TV-sports columnist, Rudy Martzke, that the restaurant at his hotel had run out of chicken, seemed to have missed the mood. "He can complain all he wants," said Gladstone (Moon) McPhee, the coach of the Bahamian men's basketball team, of Musburger. "These people don't care." Imagine: a place where no one listens to what Brent—or George, for that matter—has to say.
The hosts, too, were guilty of a few lapses in etiquette. At the three-meter springboard competition on Saturday, fans ringing cowbells and banging buckets became noisier and noisier as Cuba's Edgar Ospina held the lead through eight of 11 dives. Only remonstrations of "!Por favor!" from the P.A. announcer brought the crowd to heel. "It was like a Davis Cup tennis final," said Mark Bradshaw of the U.S., who finished second behind his countryman Kent Ferguson, after Ospina blew a back 2½ pike dive and slipped to fourth.
As it became clear on Sunday that Brazil, led by the wondrous Hort‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ncia—no surname, please—might end the nine-year, 42-game winning streak, in major competition, of the U.S. women's basketball team, the fans at the Sports City Coliseum whistled and jeered during every U.S. free throw attempt. After Brazil's 87-84 win, Maria da Silva, the victors' best three-point shooter, turned two delirious cartwheels that would have scored well in the floor exercises of the gymnastics competition going on in Santiago de Cuba, at the other end of the island.
On occasion, though, the crowds were almost too decorous. If the hometown fans hadn't taken a siesta at the start of the second half of the Cuban men's basketball game with the U.S., the Americans, including Christian Laettner of Duke and Jimmy Jackson of Ohio State, trailing by three at intermission and clearly surprised by the Cubans' quickness in the defensive backcourt and on the offensive glass, might have been rattled into losing a game they won by only 92-88.
Signs around Havana still preach SOCIALISM OR DEATH. The tenor of the Games, however, seemed to bespeak a third course: OR MAYBE WE CAN TALK THIS OUT. To allow the people to concentrate on preparing for the Games, Castro postponed the Communist Party congress, at which Cuba's current economic torpor will very likely top the agenda. Thus, until Aug. 18 they will wave their flag with carefree vigor. That banner may ultimately prove to be, as Hemingway wrote in another context, "the flag of permanent defeat." But last week, against the backdrop of their increasingly isolated and Spartan existence, Cubans were waving it as proudly as ever.