Cuba A Force At Pan American Games

Tuesday, July 10th 2007, 7:25 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ Still the main challenger to the United States in the Pan American Games medals race, Cuba suddenly has some doubts about one of its strongest sports.

Although the Cubans are favored to win the most boxing medals at the games, which begin Friday, an air of uncertainty surrounds the squad. How will the relatively inexperienced fighters perform going into the first international tournament after the stunning blow Cuban boxing sustained in December with the desertion of Olympic and Pan American medalists Yan Barthelemy, Yuriolkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis?

``The objective cannot be less than the six gold medals we won six years ago,'' Cuba boxing coach Pedro Roque said. ``We are counting on various athletes with little experience, but that's our reality and their training was designed with that in mind.''

Roque said he was not alarmed by several losses in the Dominican Republic in May.

Flyweight Yampier Hernandez and super heavyweight Robert Alfonso lost because of their lack of experience, the coach said. The defeat of world lightweight champion Yordanis Ugas to Dominican Jonathan Batista was ``a slip,'' Roque claimed.

Guillermo Rigondeaux, who holds the dual titles of Olympic and world champion in the bantamweight class will head the team, along with Ugas and welterweight Erislandy Lara. The agile Rigondeaux became Cuba's top competitive boxer with the retirement of Mario Kindelan in 2004.

``The Pan American Games will not be a stroll because the competitors have prepared very well,'' said the 26-year-old Rigondeaux, who is hoping for his third continental crown.

In 1999, Cuba won nine gold and three bronze medals in boxing. In 2003, it went home with six gold medals, three silver and one bronze.

By comparison, the United States sends a relatively inexperienced group and won't be favored for medals in nearly as many classes as the Cubans.

Overall, Cuba's sports leaders expect the nation to once again be runner-up to the Americans in the medals table. The United States has led in 13 of the 14 editions of the Pan American Games, and Cuba has been No. 2 since 1971.

``We don't want to try to determine how many gold medals we will win beforehand, but we have the conviction that we will retain second place,'' Christian Jimenez, president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports, said.

Cuba is sending 483 athletes to Rio de Janeiro, more than the 403 it sent to Santo Domingo in 2003, when it came home with 72 golds, 41 silvers and 39 bronzes.

``The delegation has an average age of 23 years because we are looking toward the Olympic Games in 2008,'' Jimenez said.

Cuba's communist government finances competitive sports in rudimentary training facilities where athletes train under a giant image of revolutionary hero Che Guevara and the patriotic slogan of ``honor and dignity.''

``We don't have all the best, but we have what is necessary,'' when it comes to facilities and equipment, Jimenez said.

Cuba's strong cards for the games include wrestling, track and field, cycling, diving, kayak, and rowing.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is baseball, ``the national sport, that we carry in our blood, passion and culture,'' Jimenez said.

Several of the young Cubans admit they are under pressure to succeed on the world stage.

``For a Cuban baseball player defeat doesn't exist,'' 22-year-old pitcher Yulieski Gourriel said. ``People expect so much of you.

``It won't take me by surprise like the World Baseball Classic did, when we lived difficult and bitter moments,'' Gourriel added. Japan beat Cuba in the classic's final.

Major league scouts are interested in Gourriel, who said during the classic that one offered him $50 million.

``I felt strange, I'm not used to this,'' he said. ``I've always said that I wouldn't accept any proposition, whatever the price. I won't play another kind of baseball. I feel very good here, with my marvelous family, and a nation that loves me.''