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Tuesday, August 22, 2000
Forget medals, Cuba just wants athletes back

By ANITA SNOW -- Associated Press

 HAVANA -- Cuba isn't encouraging its Olympics athletes to bring home the gold. It just wants them to come back.

 With the recent desertion of a member of last year's national baseball team, and the drug controversy involving world champion high-jumper Javier Sotomayor, Cuba does not want further embarrassment at the Sydney Games.

 That means no defections, no drug scandals, no controversies of any kind as communist Cuba strives to show the world its renowned sports program is spotless and worthy of playing host to the games in 2008 or 2012.

 "We do not come here tonight to ask you to be champions," Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque in early August told the 241 athletes who will represent Cuba in 21 sports. "We ask you to carry yourselves with honor and dignity."

 Before past Olympics, athletes reportedly were taken aside privately and exhorted not to shame the country. This time, a cabinet level minister did the same thing with the whole group on live national television. The delegation will be comprised of about 420 people, including trainers, doctors, and other technical staff.

 "We want.... the honor and the greatness of the homeland, more than medals and individual glory," Perez Roque insisted.

 Saying that a defection would equal stabbing the nation in the back, Perez Roque's unusually rough talk indicated concern not just about desertions but the overall reputation of Cuba and its sports program.

 "Your presence there will be a symbol of our determination to rescue Olympic values," Roque Perez said, noting that Cuba is lobbying for the right to stage the 2008 or 2012 Summer Games. "Cuba .... will continue denouncing the mercantilism that today dirties and limits today the full development of sports as an expression of friendship and relations between nations."

 Cuba banned professional sports after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Although top Cuban athletes earn the equivalent of perhaps $20 a month, they often are afforded large homes and cars. and the affection and respect of a sports-loving nation.

 Along with defections, Cuba recently indicated it will also not tolerate illicit drug use.

 The National Institute of Sports announced in July it was banning a weight lifter from sports for life after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid. Ernesto Montoya Laurencio, of the 231-pound class (105kg) class, was not on Cuba's pre-Olympic team.

 During Sotomayor's recent drug scandal, Cuba has stood by the two-time Olympic champion, saying his positive test for cocaine during last year's Pan American games was the result of a "manipulation" by its enemies.

 The international governing body of amateur track and field on Aug. 2 ruled to cut Sotomayor's two-year drug suspension in half -- a move that will allow the 32-year-old world record holder to compete in Sydney. But the scandal left an indelible stain.

 So have a string of desertions by top baseball players in recent years, notably that of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, now a pitcher for the New York Yankees, in December 1997. Hernandez's half brother, Livan, earlier left Cuba and went on to pitch for the Florida Marlins during the 1997 World Series and currently is with the San Francisco Giants.

 At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, star pitcher Rolando Arrojo defected by slipping out of his hotel room. Later branded a traitor by Castro, Arrojo is pitching for the Boston Red Sox.

 Longtime Cuban boxing coach Mariano Leyva also sought political asylum during the Atlanta games, where he was coaching the Mexican team.

 It is uncertain how geography and immigration politics could affect possible defection attempts in Sydney. While Atlanta was a short plane ride from Miami -- the heart of the U.S. Cuban exile community -- Australia is on the other side of the world and overwhelmed by a wave of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.

 Nevertheless, desertions by Cuban athletes during Olympic games have historically been less common than regional competitions and college games.

 In July, four members of Cuba's indoor soccer team visiting Costa Rica for a regional competition sought political asylum to stay there.

 Athletes also more commonly abandon the island the way other Cubans do: on illegal boat trips.

 Although baseball player Andy Morales had traveled outside Cuba several times for international competitions, he emigrated illegally to the United States in mid-July by sea. The third baseman is best known for hitting a home run during Cuba's 12-6 win last year over the Baltimore Orioles during an exhibition game at Camden Yards.

 As the games approach, some of the nation's most beloved and respected athletes have denounced athletes who "sell themselves" to "mercenary sports" and declare that they themselves have rejected million-dollar offers to abandon Cuba's socialist sports program.

 Superstar pitcher Jose A. Contreras recently told the Communist Party daily Granma that he was offered $20 million by someone claiming to represent the New York Yankees. Home-run king Omar Linares said that during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, he was offered $40 million to join a major league team.

 Both figures are far more than major league teams offer to amateur free agents, and nothing has been verified.

 "In Sydney, we will surely be surprised out of our minds," by the offers, Contreras said.

 Two-time Olympic heavyweight champion Felix Savon, given the Cuban flag by Castro to lead the Olympics team, said that in Puerto Rico in 1993 he was offered $5 million, but turned it down.

 "Money isn't everything," Savon said.

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