Category Archives: pan american games

Fidel was everywhere

Cuban president Fidel Castro (C) participates in the "wave" while watching the Pan American games women's basketball semi-final between Cuba and the United States of America, 10 August 1991, in the Latinoamericano stadium. Cuba won 86-81.

I remember Fidel as something of a shopping mall Santa Claus, showing up everywhere that our small band of American reporters went while covering the 1991 Pan American Games in Cuba. It was as if there was more than one Fidel, like Mickey Mouse at Disney World, materializing at the basketball arena, the track stadium, the water polo pool, the softball field. Often on the same day.

At a Cuba vs. U.S. women’s basketball game, Fidel joined the crowd in doing the wave. He posed for pictures with medal winners of multiple sports. He so insinuated himself into the operation, personally hanging medals around winners’ necks—especially Cuban winners, but others, too—that U.S. sports officials began to grumble that he was violating Olympic and Pan Am protocol.


Technically, as head of state of the Pan Am host nation, his only involvement was to officially open the games with a brief, scripted declaration, then become a mere spectator. But he played all the parts in the production.

At one point during the Games, there were rumors that he had suffered a heart attack, gossip immediately put to rest when he showed up at the Pan Am bowling lanes. We Yanks constantly were on the lookout at public gatherings for the familiar bearded presence, so easy to spot in his green fatigues (the emperor’s old clothes), an exercise we likened to a weird game of “Where’s Waldo?”


We were just sports journalists, but what was eminently clear then, as in the reports in the days since Fidel’s death at 90, was how omnipresent he was in all Cubans’ lives. In the wake of his 1959 revolution, he had engendered fierce loyalty among the public for bringing education and health care to the lowest classes, yet he eventually became widely feared for restrictions—often brutal—on speech and assembly, and hated by Cuban exiles for his strong-arm nationalization of private enterprise.

At the time of the ’91 Pan Am Games, Cuba had just lost its most dependable sugar daddy with the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, and Fidel’s economic policies were failing most citizens. Yet he toured the Games in a caravan of Mercedes limousines, while most of the populace lived in ramshackle buildings and had to stand in line for a daily ration of two loaves of bread, no bigger than baseballs, as well as each family’s once-in-every-nine-days schedule to obtain a chicken. So much for Fidel’s defiant maxim of “Socialism or Death.”

Ironies were everywhere. Cuban athletes delivered to us the party line that representing their country, and by extension Fidel’s revolution, in amateur competition was far preferable to lucrative professional careers abroad. Yet they acknowledged that sports champions received well above the average Cuban’s income, were afforded free cars and free apartments and never had to wait in bread lines. (This, even as there were persistent reports of Cuban jocks defecting in search of U.S. contracts.)

Too, there was obvious tourist apartheid. A colleague and I visited Veradero Beach, two hours east of Havana, a playground for rich capitalists on holiday from Europe and Canada (no regular Cubans allowed), a sort of Hilton Head resort smack in the middle of epidemic poverty. We drove there in a rented new Nissan, available to foreign visitors while Cubans were stuck with decaying pre-revolution American cars or rickety little Russian Ladas.

Then there was the incongruity of the Pan Am shooting competition in Cotorro, an isolated piece of land just east of Havana, where a small band of U.S. military personnel were in full evidence. They had guns. And they didn’t miss.

It was a thoroughly apolitical situation, of course—members of the Marines or U.S. police forces who competed on the American team as amateur target-practice elites. No counter revolution or anything like that was going on. But it was such an unlikely scene, given Fidel’s rigid rejection of U.S. imperialists. The Yank sharpshooters were roundly cheered by Cuban spectators as they blazed away at flying clay pigeons and stationary targets.

A 33-year-old Air Force captain named Bill Roy set a world record for accuracy, then took pains to argue that it was “an opportunity to be anything but an Ugly American.” He said his real job was as an English professor at the Air Force Academy, “teaching Beowulf and his search for fame” to academy freshman. Still, You Know Who was in everybody’s thoughts.

“Why isn’t Fidel here?” American shooting team member Roxanne Thompson wanted to know. “He’s a military guy.”

Back at our hotel in downtown Havana, the Habana Libre, I had been getting calls from an apparent government functionary, inviting me to share a drink. (His name was Dmitry or Sergei or Yuri, some Russian name that was not unusual for a Cuban after all those years of USSR relationships.) I kept putting him off with the excuse—based on fact—that I had a busy, unpredictable schedule.

Finally, he corralled me in the hotel lobby. He said he just wanted to talk about what I thought of Cuba and Cubans and the Games, though fellow U.S. reporters said they suspected he wanted to monitor—or somehow already was monitoring—whether I was reporting on issues beyond mere sport.

I was, of course. A few details about how Cubans could be fined, and possibly arrested, for fraternizing with foreigners. About the ghost-town aspects of Havana shops that were available to citizens, in contrast to the stylish restaurants and bars frequented by visitors. About a day trip to the Bay of Pigs, site of the ill-conceived 1961 U.S. attempt to overthrow Fidel with a brigade of Cuban exiles, and Fidel’s emergence from that victory as a charismatic leader. About a brief pass through Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel’s first attempt at a revolution in 1953, against president Fulgencio Batista—believed by many Cubans to be a tool of the U.S.-based mafia—had failed, leaving bullet holes in the walls of the Moncada Barracks that still were visible.


Nothing came of Dmitry’s (or Yuri’s) interest in my work, though our brief chat was one more reminder of the ubiquitous Fidel.

During that 1991 assignment, some of us wondered if, without Fidel, Cuba would evolve away from the dictator’s half-century of sulfurous anti-U.S. rule and an intolerance of homegrown dissent. Or would Cuba return to the Batista days, with a small upper echelon of super-wealthy landowners and affluent tourists, again consigning the majority of Cubans to be an underpaid and under-educated servant class.

Back then, it was hard to see that he ever would be out of the picture.




Somos el Mundo, an Olympic preliminary

(It’s an Olympic year, a we-are-the-world reminder.)


Call me unworldly. Some years ago, a driver pulled alongside my rented car late one summer evening at a stoplight in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was on the island to cover the 1979 Pan American Games, the so-called Western Hemisphere Olympics, dipping a toe into the international sports waters for the first time.

From that driver, through his open window: “Que hora es?”

From me: A blank stare, and, “Uhhhhh…”

Again, politely: “Que hora es, por favor?”

Again, baffled, and with elaborate, nonsensical hand motions: “Uhhhhh….I’m sorry. I….I don’t understand….”

“Ah,” he said, and rephrased the question in perfect English: “Do you have the time?”

It may be the first lesson of travel beyond these shores that we Yanks, lucky enough to be born in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, are not exceptional in every way. Just days into that Pan Am assignment, I discovered my own linguistic shortcomings in comparison to the natives, as well as American gymnastics officials’ execution of a graceless loophole around failure, and the very embodiment of the Ugly American in U.S. basketball coach Bobby Knight.


Is winning really the only thing? In the case of the gymnasts, U.S. officials purposely sent only four athletes apiece for the women’s and men’s competitions, aware that five were necessary for team scoring. Which meant they would compete without any danger of losing.

U.S. 800-meter runner James Robinson, awaiting a judge’s decision on whether he illegally impeded an opponent, grumbled, “The Americans are always getting screwed. I won’t be surprised if I get screwed out of the gold.” In fact, Robinson was awarded the victory. In fact, many observers—including several from the U.S.—thought Robinson indeed merited a disqualification.

As the Games played out, under the swaying Puerto Rican palms and, in some cases, at competition venues overlooking the blue Atlantic, even a prominent U.S. journalist, aghast at incidents of personal discomfort and imperfection, was guilty of casting aspersions. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell’s sometimes snarky reports—not all based in fact—of administrative and logistical foul-ups, moved Puerto Rican Governor Carlos Romero Marcelo to publicly denounce Boswell’s “racist tone.”

(With U.S. and Canadian colleagues in San Juan)

(With U.S. and Canadian colleagues in San Juan)

(Full disclosure: There were some blunders, traffic issues and miscommunications. And thank goodness for the vending machines in the basement of my motel, with heated cans of Chef Boyadee ravioli to provide life-saving 2 a.m. sustenance when nothing else was available. But my own editor, Dick Sandler, wisely cautioned me to consider the bigger picture and keep the less consequential inadequecies in context, and out of the newspaper. Sure enough, significantly larger organizational snafus and official arrogance were yet to come in my international missions—most notably on the home turf of the world’s greatest superpower, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.)

Particularly ironic, amid all the lowly foreigner allusions tossed around San Juan in ‘79, was an apparent ignorance among U.S. visitors that Puerto Rico is one of us, a U.S. Commonwealth; that, while they have their own culture and language, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. They just happen to have autonomous athletic teams (many stocked with players raised and based somewhere in the States).

There are, of course, knuckleheads extant in every part of this big, round ball upon which we live. But some of them are “us,” as well as a few of “them.” Beginning with that Puerto Rican adventure, and through many subsequent trips for pre-event and competition coverage of 11 Olympics Games as well as a handful of other global sports happenings, I became convinced that assumptions of superiority, simply based on birth in the U.S. of A., can be woefully misguided. (I also came to appreciate the wisdom of at least attempting a few phrases and greetings in the local tongues.)

By the time I had successfully navigated two other non-U.S.-mainland Pan Am Games and right to my last Olympics, the 2006 Turin Winter Games, it was abundantly clear that neither competence nor grace-under-pressure is the province a singular culture. And that an only-winning-matters temperament is neither attractive nor especially admirable.

Among the embarrassments occasionally generated by U.S. jocks on the international stage was the trashing of two rooms at the 1998 Nagano athletes’ village by members of America’s ice hockey team after their quarterfinal upset loss to the Czechs. That was the first time NHL pros participated in the Olympics and the U.S. team, laboring under the assumption of gold-medal entitlement, miserably failed the red-face test. Keith Tkachuk proclaimed their Olympic participation “a waste of time” and joined teammates in a code of silence, refusing to cooperate with officials investigating the incident.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, U.S. swimmers Troy Dalbey and Douglas Gjertsen, relay gold medalists, somehow escaped criminal charges after stealing an $860 decorative lion’s-head carving from a local hotel and lamely acknowledging nothing more sinister than “boyish exuberance.”

Uhhhhh….I’m sorry. I….I don’t understand….

Happily, it turns out, there is a majority of chivalrous U.S. folks at these global gatherings who are able to grasp the concept of being a good guest. And appreciative of the experience. In San Juan in ’79, that included a 17-year-old boxer from Jackson, Tenn., named Jackie Beard, who proclaimed himself “glad I’ve come. Who from my hometown has ever gotten the chance to come to the Pam Am Games and represent his country, and even had a chance to win the gold medal?”—which he did.

Regrettably, though, the news magnet—the Puerto Rican Games’ headliner—was the pompous, culturally clueless Knight, true to his us-against-them colors and cited in Sports Illustrated’s coverage for “gross incivility.” Knight was ejected from the Americans’ first game of the Pan Am tournament for vehemently arguing calls during a 35-point victory, reprimanded by international basketball officials, arrested and charged in a heated argument with a local policemen, accused of directing demeaning slurs at the women’s team from Brazil and dismissive of Governor Romero when the latter attempted to defuse any thoughts of a home-court conspiracy against the U.S. players. Through it all, Knight took a perverse pride in blustering that he was “not a diplomat,” made it clear he would not speak to Puerto Rican reporters, cursed the locals and belittled them with, “All they know how to do on this damn island is grow bananas.”

He was off-base there, too; Puerto Rico’s economy for decades had been based on a multi-faceted industry and tourism, and before that, sugar cane and coffee. Yes, they had no bananas.

“You do not deserve respect,” Gerraro Marchand, Puerto Rico’s delegate to the international basketball federation, told Knight at the conclusion of the Games. “You treat us like dirt. You have said nothing but bad things since you got here. You are an embarrassment to America. Our country.”

Even worse, Knight—whose University of Indiana teams were college juggernauts—was elevated to the 1984 Olympic head coaching position by U.S. basketball officials who defended him as “a coach of great renown” in spite of public off-color comments he repeated in paid speeches after his departure from San Juan. “When that plane was taxiing on the runway and taking off,” Knight told attendees at one rubber-chicken appearance, “I stood up, unzipped my pants, lowered my shorts and turned my bare ass to the window of that plane—because that’s the last thing I wanted those people to see of me.”

The best I can surmise, as a patriot of international brotherhood nevertheless verbally handicapped, an appropriate response to the dark and whining Knight would be….

Hasta nunca. I hope never to see you again.

Or: Y que no ya no regrese. And don’t come back. (Loosely: Good riddance.)