INDIANAPOLIS -- When Roberta Ross arrived to watch women's team handball the other day, she was surprised by security that included having her purse searched. Same with men's volleyball a while later. And when the procedure was about to be repeated a third time, before men's softball, she concluded:
"Must be the Cubans playing."
Cuba is the lightning rod for these 10th Pan Am Games. Drawn by it, and toward it, Cuba symbolizes what is good and also frustrating about this particular athletic blip. And all of Olympic-related sport.
If it weren't mostly for the Cubans, few outside each athletic federation would give a hoot about these two weeks of competition. If it weren't mostly for the Cubans, United States athletes would be less clear about their abilities. If it weren't mostly for the Cubans, a cabby here would not be looking out his window and saying:
"First time I've ever seen that."
"Cops walking the streets here."
He shook his head sadly. If only for a little while, his town had lost something precious.
That happened to Olympic-related sport in 1972, with the murders of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Games. Men and women at play had became important enough to be used by anyone with a cause.
Lots of what passes for goodness and shame depends on your point of view. In the same day here, I was handed a paperback "paraphrase of the New Testament" and also a leaflet offering a $25,000 reward to any Cuban athlete who defected.
Passions being so strong, and the freedom to express them reasonably so available, it would have been more surprising if there had been no anti-Cuban displays the first few days.
The forum here is a hemisphere wide. And free.
For the first few days, most of the focus has been political. Weightlifting got noticed, because of a Cuban who defected to the U.S. seven years ago, for reasons that had nothing to do with ideology. A baseball game between the U.S. and Nicaragua crashed the front pages all over America.
I feel about Games that rate a capital G the way Roberto Urrutia does about defecting. He was proud to represent the U.S. but added: "If anybody wants to say something about defecting, please don't do it, because that's a big mistake."
I'm ambivalent about upper-case Games. I love 'em, because they fuel the spirit; I hate 'em, because they generate such heated nationalism. I love 'em, because of individual excellence; I hate 'em, because too many teams have intruded.
I would like to see team sports scratched from events such as the Pan Ams and the Olympics. Team events eliminate too many countries; team events encourage national pride to slip into dangerous nationalism.
There is a major difference between a Cuban athlete running or jumping against a U.S. athlete and CUBA vs. THE UNITED STATES. Our guy against their guy is healthy competition; us against them is potentially explosive.
Unfortunately, us against the Cubans has been a major focus of these Games, because both countries emphasize sport more than nearly all the others combined. The collision has happened a few times so far, with results as surprising as they were revealing.
You would expect any team that trains together year-around and practices twice daily five days a week and Saturday mornings to be almost robotically efficient.
You would expect to have a hard time cheering for such a collection of seemingly narrow minded humans. But that subsidized point machine actually is made in America. The U.S. women team handballers crushed the Cubans, 33-11.
The living expenses of the U.S. players are taken care of, so their sport amounts to their job. The women supplement living expenses with part-time work such as house cleaning, house painting and making soft trinkets that include "frustration bricks."
The Cuban government assumes for its athletes most of what American private enterprise does for ours. But the result amounts to this: subsidized athletes vs. subsidized athletes.
Demonstrators apparently slept late during this Cuban handball morning. The men played Canada in the first match, at 9 a.m., and security was more comical than necessary.
Interest in team handball is not close to keen in middle America, so the Cuba-Canada game began with five policemen and about 25 fans. One policeman was standing guard over an entire section of empty seats. Another was watching an elderly woman read her paper.
The Cuban men were as exciting to watch as the American women in a sport that combines elements of basketball (dribbling) and hockey (a goal).
In men's softball later, a policeman could be seen on a hillside just beyond the left-field fence. Others were perched near the dugouts and high in the stands.
Not so obvious was this: the Cuban catcher comes to bat, paws at the dirt and all of a sudden shakes the hand of the U.S. backstop. What this illustrates is that the games within the Games usually go smoothly.
Athletes almost always get along better than governments.
"We spent a month in Moscow," said women's team handball player Sherry Winn. "Had a great time."
This first week, the Pan Ams have been mixed up in a harmless way. Nicaragua was the home team against the U.S. in men's baseball, Cuba the home team against the U.S. in men's softball.
The only athletes who apparently have fled their teams were from the Dominican Republic. Four cyclists and four weightlifters left the 92-person delegation Monday, and two more apparently left later in the week.
"People think in my country that here you find dollars hanging from trees," the president of the Dominican Olympic Committee, Jose Puello, told the Chicago Tribune, "that you can get $3,000 to $5,000 a month in New York for just doing nothing.
"If that's why they left, they just went behind an illusion."
As long as sensible people do not get trapped by illusion, Games have a chance to thrive. The idea that the U.S. denying a Chilean a visa will do irreparable harm to Anchorage's chances of hosting the 1994 winter Olympics seems silly.
Also, the notion that Cubans and Americans must be on guard and stuffy at all times together got smashed one evening four months ago in Havana.
Before dinner with the Cuban delegation, an American athletic official walked over to a vase, leaned toward flowers he pretended were listening devices and said: "Testing. One . . . two . . . three."
The Cubans took this in its intended good spirit. Just before leaving, one of their officials grabbed the vase and told the flowers: "We're leaving now."
Then he distributed the flowers among the American women, calling them "wireless roses." It was a hopeful moment in international relations.