MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina -- Eighteen months ago, when a delegation from the U.S. Olympic Committee arrived in Argentina to check on preparations for the XIIth Pan American Games, the officials were startled at what they found.
Half-built arenas, seedy hotels, an overgrown baseball field, an organizing committee in virtual disarray.
"We wondered," said Sandy Baldwin, "if they would ever pull it off."
Baldwin has been the Pan Am Games chef du mission, or team leader, for the U.S. contingent of 1,200 athletes, coaches and support personnel. And when the games ended their 16-day fiesta with yesterday's closing ceremonies, Baldwin was thrilled with how things turned out.
"It has gone absolutely fabulous," she said. "They've done a far better job than we ever thought they'd do. I'd give these games an A."
In terms of medals, that certainly would appear to be true.
The U.S. team broke its Pan Am records for gold medals, with 169, and total medals, with 424. The previous marks were set at the 1987 games in Indianapolis.
"It's nice to be the chef of a record-breaking American team," said Baldwin. "We knew we had a good team."
But toting up Pan Am medals -- and then bragging about them -- isn't sporting.
These games, for example, had 37 sports on the program -- six more than the 1991 games in Cuba, with dozens more events. The arithmetic and the logic are simple: You play more sports, you win more medals.
Also, a cautionary note about projecting toward Atlanta: 80 of the U.S. medals (40 golds) here came in non-Olympic sports. Roller skating alone accounted for 41 U.S. medals.
Some of the other highlights and notable issues at the Mar del Plata games:
* Cuba: For the first time at a major sports event, Cuban athletes and coaches were untethered from the political commissars who have always accompanied them on foreign trips. They were free to leave their village, free to talk to reporters. Some of them even held news conferences.
* Drugs: The modern concept of drug testing was introduced at the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela, and at every games, the organizers hope to get away clean, with no positive tests.
Argentina almost made it: Going into the final weekend, three athletes had turned up dirty -- two weightlifters and a rower, none of them from the U.S.
* The 1996 Olympics: Some promising U.S. faces emerged at the Pan Ams, faces that we'll likely be seeing 16 months from now in Atlanta -- rower Jamie Koven, judo player Jim Pedro, gymnast Amy Chow, volleyball setter Lloy Ball and boxer Antonio Tarver.
And some of the old familiar faces were here, too -- swimmer Tom Jager, gymnast Shannon Miller, softball pitcher Michele Granger, volleyball captain Bob Ctvrtlik.
"It was a great lead-up to Atlanta . . . an invaluable experience," said Baldwin. "I think the athletes would say it's $4 million well spent."
* TV: Basically, there wasn't any.
ABC and NBC were said to be interested, but when the Argentine organizers bungled the preparations, the nets backed off.
A regional cable operation owned by Ted Turner decided the week before the opening ceremonies to put together a one-hour highlights package that reached about 22 million U.S. homes. But the shows were typically buried in pre-dawn time slots, long after the Ab Isolator and Psychic Hotline people had all gone to bed.
* Basketball: The NBA was in season, the NCAA tournament was at full roar, and the CBA all-stars didn't want to be stuck in Argentina if the NBA came calling.
So the U.S. basketball team was put together with a dozen of the CBA's second-tier players, and it showed. The United States had to go to overtime against Uruguay, then lost the gold-medal game to Argentina.