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JUMPING FOR THE GOLD RECENT CUBAN DEFECTIONS FUEL SPECULATION OF MORE TO COME

July 19, 1996
July 19, 1996

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July 19, 1996

JUMPING FOR THE GOLD RECENT CUBAN DEFECTIONS FUEL SPECULATION OF MORE TO COME

By S. L. PRICE

In the city of fast bucks, where you can't walk three steps
without getting hustled and people rent homes to strangers and
the tourist is king, they are thinking Olympics today. We speak,
of course, about Havana, which may be the one place in the
Western Hemisphere that can match Atlanta in its rabid worship
of the Yankee dollar and is certainly one of the few now mulling
the fate of Cuban athletes. Who will be the next to defect? How
will they go? Over the fence? Off the victory stand? Now? When?

This is an article from the July 19, 1996 issue

This is no shocker. Cuban athletes have been hopping the fence
en masse for five years now, and it was always expected that a
month in America would only encourage more. But the Olympic-eve
defections of top boxers Ramon Garbey and Joel Casamayor and of
the baseball team's best pitcher, Rolando Arrojo, have sent the
usual speculation into overdrive. There are hints that the
mighty Cuban sports machine is shuddering under the strain, and
rumors now fly about superstars like third baseman Omar Linares,
high jumper Javier Sotomayor and heavyweight Felix Savon. The
pitcher with the best winning percentage in Cuban League
history, Orlando (Duke) Hernandez, was left off the Olympic
team, and many will tell you it was because the regime feared he
would follow his half brother Livan and never come home.

"It's not true," says onetime Olympic hero Alberto Juantorena,
now vice president of the Cuban Olympic committee. "Another
pitcher was better than him. Many whispers, many stories, many
bad news about my country that give the public a bad picture.
Why all the time chasing the Cuban delegation, all the time
trying to buy athletes, all the time under pressure...why?"

This is a different Juantorena than the one many Americans may
remember. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics he won gold medals in
the 400 and 800 meters, and he has ever since served as the
proud face of a defiant Cuba, disdainful of his countrymen who
leave and gleeful in his condemnation of them. "Bad potatoes!"
he would shout. "Out of the sack! Pigeons...who fly awaaaay!"
But on Wednesday, sitting in the cavernous lobby of Atlanta's
Downtown Hyatt, Juantorena seemed sapped of his usual fire, more
subdued and almost whiny, as if he knew that no amount of
rhetoric could whitewash the latest embarrassment. "We aren't
concerned about this," he says. "We don't care about people who
defect. We focus our concern on people who really have a chance
to win here, people who love their country, people they can't
buy: Savon, Linares, Sotomayor...there are many. They don't have
the money to buy those athletes."

But Juantorena knows: They do have the money. Agents like
Miami-based Joe Cubas--who in the past year has lured five
players from the once-untouchable baseball program--can now
point to huge contracts signed by Livan Hernandez ($6 million
over four years with the Florida Marlins) and Osvaldo Fernandez
($3.2 million over three years with the San Francisco Giants) as
proof of what awaits anyone with the guts to go. And the fact
is, Havana today is more like Atlanta than like the old Moscow:
Aside from the ever-dwindling pack of true believers, the
typical Habanero is far more worried about making a buck than
making revolution. The typical athlete? The older generation is
like Duke Hernandez, who, nearing the end of his career, waited
last winter, disgusted, for the car his government had been
promising for years. "I can't believe it either," Hernandez said
at the time. "They keep saying it and saying it, but it never
comes."

And the younger generation, such as pitching phenom Omar Luis
and triple jumper Yoelbi Quesada, has come of age when Cuban
athletes and coaches earn money in Europe and Japan, and
defection is more an option than a sin. Fidel Castro may call
Arrojo a "Judas" who sold out his country "for 12 gold coins,"
but most Cubans now would like a piece of that action. Even the
regime itself has encouraged small steps toward a market
economy. That is one reason security around the team has eased
in recent years and why you keep reading stories about a player
walking unnoticed out of his hotel. That is why the defections
will keep happening and the regime will do little to stop them.
The regime figures, better to spit out poison than let it
corrode your insides. The regime will tell you: Even with Cuba's
best and brightest forsaking all they know to get out, the
revolution remains strong.

"If not?" Juantorena says. He shrugs. "We disappear."

COLOR PHOTO: GREAVES/AP Garbey (left) and Casamayor hit Cuba with a one-two combination. [Ramon Garbey and Joel Casamayor]