HAVANA — In the medals race that has been waged by the region's two sports superpowers, the United States and Cuba, there has been a tendency to overlook 37 other countries from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean that also sent athletes to compete in the Pan American Games.
Friday morning, inside a makeshift gym near the athletes' village, officials and media from Mexico gathered to watch their men's basketball team in a spirited workout as it prepared for today's championship game at the Sports City Coliseum against Puerto Rico.
In contrast, the U.S. men, who worked out immediately after Mexico, went through their drills for today's third-place game against Cuba in virtual privacy.
As Alfredo La Mont, a Mexican who serves as the U.S. Olympic Committee's director of international relations, said, who would have believed when competition began two weeks ago that the United States would finish ahead of Mexico in soccer and behind it in men's basketball?
But all that Raul Gonzalez Rodriguez, who as president of Mexico's National Sports Commission has cabinet-level status in the government, has to do to remember that the world has not turned entirely upside down is look at the medal standings.
Through Thursday, Cuba and the United States had won 233 gold medals between them. Twelve other countries had combined for 73. Twenty-five countries had yet to win one.
Gonzalez, however, did not seem the least bit concerned that the Pan American Games have turned into a dual meet. To the contrary, he said while watching Mexico's basketball team practice, he has been encouraged by the progress made by several other countries, including his own.
At first glance, it would seem that Mexico has had more than its share of frustrations. Criticized for failing to field teams in five sports, two of the teams it did bring, in soccer and baseball, were involved in brawls. A rower, Jose Antonio Gomez, was stripped of a gold medal because he tested positive for a banned stimulant contained in his cold medication. World champion racewalker Ernesto Canto, considered one of the country's few sure bets for a gold medal, finished fifth.
But Gonzalez emphasized the positive, pointing out that Mexico never has won more gold medals than the 14 it had through Thursday. Four years ago at Indianapolis, it won nine. Also, Mexico was in a tight race with Brazil for fourth place in overall medals with 67, which is 29 more than Mexico won at Indianapolis.
More significantly, Gonzalez said, Mexico was only 34 behind third-place Canada in overall medals. At Indianapolis, Mexico finished 124 behind Canada.
"Even though the medal standings show that there is a large gap between two countries, the United States and Cuba, and the rest, you can also see that there is a lot of improvement in other countries, specifically Mexico and Brazil," Gonzalez said. "We are narrowing the gap with Canada, which has always been between us and the top level.
"But there are other things you have to watch for besides the medal count. I have been present at the last five Pan American Games, and I feel that this is the first time that the technical level has been almost even. In the past, you could see that athletes from the first three countries--the United States, Cuba and Canada--were very able, and the rest were really, really far behind.
"Two countries have gotten most of the medals here, but if you watch the athletes from Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia, you can see that they have been able to compete, not just show. That's very important."
Gonzalez has been no small part of Mexico's improvement. A three-time world champion racewalker who won gold and silver medals in the 1984 Olympic Games and set 11 world records, he said that he was frustrated as an athlete because Mexico had no cohesive program for either mass or elite sport.
So, after Carlos Salinas de Gortari was elected the country's president, Gonzalez said he went to him and suggested that the government play a more important role in sports. Two years ago, Salinas established the National Sports Commission and appointed Gonzalez as president.
With a budget of $300 million a year, half provided by the government and the remainder by the private sector, Gonzalez said the commission's primary objective is to elevate the level of school sports programs. But it also provides facilities as well as training for coaches, officials and sports medicine doctors.
"For a country like Mexico, of course, it's important to win medals," he said. "But that is not the goal. The goal is to create a heightened awareness of sport so that it becomes an important part of the culture. We would like to see increased participation among the youth so that the next generation can approach the realities of modern life with a winning mentality. It is a social factor."
Winning medals, he said, is one of the means for heightening awareness.
"It is a way of showcasing our results," he said. "I think the people of Mexico have had difficulty believing our success because the time has been very short for a program that started just two years ago. But my expectation is that we will give them a big, big surprise four years from now in the next Pan American Games."
One surprise here is Mexico's appearance in the men's basketball final, somewhat soothing the sting of a 2-1 loss to the United States for the soccer championship. When their national soccer teams met in the semifinals of the Gold Cup at the Coliseum in July, the United States beat Mexico for only the third time since 1934.
Gonzalez even put a positive perspective on that. "The most important consequence of losing to the United States in soccer is that it forces us to re-evaluate our programs and implement change that will allow us to improve," he said.
"For that, we are grateful to the United States."