A blast from Cuba's terrific athletic past For Juantorena, Stevenson, memories

HAVANA — HAVANA -- They were the Lion and the Horse, a fighter and a runner who emerged from the island of Cuba and provided the moments that made the Olympics something special back in the 1970s.

Teofilo Stevenson was a heavyweight boxer who looked like Muhammad Ali and hit like Joe Louis, and when he came across an American hope named Duane Bobick at Munich in 1972, he cut the pug's face and slugged him around the ring and won the first of his three gold medals.


Alberto Juantorena came roaring out of a turn in Montreal in 1976, chewing up space and time with legs that didn't seem to end, winning gold medals in the unheard of combination of 400 and 800 meters.

Yesterday, the Lion and the Horse were together again, batting down questions at an international news conference that was flavored in Spanish, English and Portuguese. They came to tell the world how proud they are that Cuba is playing host to the 11th Pan American Games.


"I think now, I have another gold medal worth more than the other ones," said Juantorena, the vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports.

Stevenson, who is retired, looks a little paunchy, his voice is slurred and his brown eyes often appear unfocused. He looks like a man who has fought one time too many. Juantorena remains fit and lean, the only sign of age a receding hairline.

Juantorena, a budding bureaucrat, did most of the talking.

He detailed the rough blueprint of the Cuban sports system, a pyramid where athletes move slowly up steps from local to regional to national to international competition. The country of 10.4 million has 28,000 physical education teachers and 100,000 coaches who scout for talent.

"I think the work at the grass roots level is the cornerstone of Cuban sport," Juantorena said.

He pointed to high jump world record-holder Javier Sotomayor and runner Ana Quirot as examples of the system. Spotted by "local activists" early, the two have blossomed into international stars.

Juantorena also expressed delight in Quirot's performance at the games. Cuba's newest national heroine has already won gold in the 400 and the 800, and will anchor the country's 4x400 relay today.

"When I see her, I feel like running myself," Juantorena said. "You know she runs the same events as me. She is a terrific athlete. I think you enjoy a lot to see her running, her style, her strength, her power in the last few meters. We are in the presence of an exceptional athlete."


Stevenson was once among the world's exceptional fighters. He could have turned professional early in his career, but he left a $1 million offer from fight promoters on the table. While Ali, Joe Frazier George Foreman and Ken Norton ruled professional boxing, Stevenson remained an amateur, punching his way through three-round brawls.

What if Stevenson had met Ali? It was the question that tantalized the sport.

"Maybe he would have regretted fighting me," Stevenson said. "I can only say he was a very great athlete. I loved seeing him fight. He made a proposal of holding five fights, three rounds each, or three fights, five rounds each. It never happened."

Stevenson spends his days helping the Cuban boxing program. Not surprisingly, he predicts Cuba will win all 12 boxing golds.

"Our life is guaranteed, and life is the most beautiful thing about life," he said. "I don't think in terms of millions. I have what I need. I don't change my health for all the gold that exists in the world. I love walking quietly around the streets in Cuba."

Juantorena enjoys a swifter pace. He is a star on the rise in Cuba's political arena, controlling what is perhaps the country's most important resource -- its athletes. Juantorena said he doesn't want to turn Cuban sports into a carbon copy of the East German system, a machine that churned out Olympic medalists.


"Our goal is to develop a sports system to improve the health of our population," he said. "We don't pursue sports to win medals. Lots of people are shocked that Cuba can be a small country and have such positive results internationally."

According to Juantorena, Cuba's greatest miracle is staging these Games in spite of massive economic problems. The facilities are up, the athletes are performing, and the flame burns bright at the Pan American Stadium.