Pan Am Games are little draw for top players U.S. stars bypass Cuba for main events

HAVANA — HAVANA -- OK, so you're Carl Lewis and you have a chance to tour Europe during the first two weeks in August, picking up lucrative paychecks for racing at meets in Switzerland and Italy and preparing for the most important track and field event of the year, the World Championships.

Or you could turn down the money and spend a few days in an apartment for four without air conditioning in steamy Havana, worrying about the quality of the water and the food, before finally running and jumping for free in a slightly frayed event called the Pan American Games.


Tough choice, huh?

For superstar competitors from the United States such as Lewis, the chance to appear at the Pan Am Games is an offer they can refuse. The United States is sending a contingent of 685 athletes to Cuba, but don't expect to see Lewis or Leroy Burrell or Jackie Joyner-Kersee in the event, which begins tomorrow and concludes Aug. 18.


In international sports, the Pan Am Games are like a B-film, a necessary inconvenience before the feature attraction. The event, held every four years since 1951 in the summer preceding the Olympic Games, draws athletes from 39 nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Top-ranked U.S. teams are expected in basketball and diving, but the United States is leaving behind many of its star athletes to prepare for championships later this summer. The big events:

* World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo, Aug. 23-Sept. 1.

* Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Edmonton, Aug. 22-25.

* World Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis, Sept. 6-15.

The crowded sports calendar isn't the only thing keeping the stars away. There is the draining heat, the lure of appearance fees at European events, the uncertainty surrounding the completion of 15 major facilities and the worry that an adequate drug-testing facility may not be in place.

But excuses are nothing new at the Pan Am Games. The United States traditionally has a difficult time attracting its top athletes to the event. Usually, being second- or third-best in the United States is good enough to contend for a Pan Am medal. Through 10 games, the United States is the overall medal leader with 2,336, including 1,127 golds. Cuba is second with 1,077, including 328 gold.

The United States is expected to lead the medal standings, but it no longer can count on dominating through sheer numbers. Cuba, with the largest delegation, is looking to put its athletic stamp on an event that is taking place against a backdrop of harsh economic times. Brazil, which upset the United States to win the Pan Am gold medal in men's basketball in 1987, is again sending its best athletes.


"This is big-league competition," said U.S. baseball coach Ron Polk.

Not every sport is taking a big-league approach to the games. Certainly, there are some marquee names and teams going to the games, including high jumper Hollis Conway, a powerful U.S. women's basketball team led by Teresa Edwards and a men's basketball team anchored by Duke's Christian Laettner and Maryland's Walt Williams.

But the United States is sending what amounts to B-teams in boxing, gymnastics, swimming and track and field.

At last month's U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, the gold medalists in the boxing tournament were given a choice: compete at November's World Championships in Sydney or fight the Cubans on their home turf at the Pan Am Games. All the winners selected a trip to Australia.

"Why go to the Pan Am Games?" said Eric Griffin, the defending 106-pound world champion. "You want to be known as a world champion."

Billy Dove, USA Boxing's president, disputes the notion that a second-rate American team will be appearing in Cuba.


"We're trying to develop many boxers and many coaches at many levels," he said. "I'm not going to send the same 12 boxers to both events. We have more than 12 good boxers in this country."

The talent drain even may hinder the U.S. baseball team, which needs a top-four finish to qualify for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. After major-league teams plucked the top juniors in the June free-agent draft, Polk was left to rummage for players from among college freshmen and sophomores.

"We invited seven juniors to our tryout camp, and none showed up," Polk said. "We're trying to do the best we can with a young ballclub. We'll give it our best shot."

Other U.S. teams that are sending their best athletes include archery, judo, shooting, softball, team handball, weight-lifting and wrestling.

"We have a good rapport with the Cubans," said 1986 world wrestling heavyweight champion Bruce Baumgartner. "They're real nice hosts. The fans are obviously very pro-Cuban, but they're very knowledgeable. I think Cuba will pull this thing off."

The American stars may be sending their regrets, but the show will go on.