MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — Having been kicked by a Nicaraguan athlete to my left and elbowed by a Santa Lucia coach to my right, in the little middle seat of my Aerolineas Argentinas jet, I kiss the ground upon landing and prepare for the Pan American Games, which begin here this weekend.
Summertime is slipping away in this Atlantic city of half a million people, an hour's plane ride south of Buenos Aires. But tourists jam the cabana chairs at the beach, gamblers go into casinos near the boardwalk and thousands of athletes representing North and South America--159 from California alone--have come for a competition traditionally conducted the year before a Summer Olympics.
This being my first visit to South America, I am happily playing tourist myself. One thing I discover almost immediately is that Argentina is a country where restaurants generally serve dinner no sooner than 9 p.m., make cigarette smokers feel welcome and encourage diners to eat red meat. So this ain't California, know what I mean?
Hollywood films are playing all over town. At the Los Gallegos Cinema I, this morning's newspaper discloses that "'Acoso Sexual,' con M. Duglas y D. Moore," is showing four times daily. "Entrevista con el Vampiro" is the featured attraction at the Santa Fe, starring Tom Cruise and with Brad Pitt as el vampiro. Appearing at the Regina theater is "Forrest Gump," known to people down here as "Forrest Gump."
Another thing I notice right away here is that the women, no matter their sizes or ages, all appear to be dressed in skirts eight inches above the knee and very high heels. Night or day, hot or cold, indoors or out, this is what they wear. I half-expect to see even nurses and nuns attired this way.
The climate is beginning to cool after being in the 90s a few weeks back. Now moving into autumn here, Mar Del Plata is a resort community where the sunbathers take up every available inch of space along the sand. This is the principal host city of the 12th Pan American Games, which were last held in Havana in 1991, and which will be held in Winnipeg, Canada, four years from now.
By then, the United States might pull out of this event entirely. Less and less interest in the Pan Ams is being generated yearly, particularly as our national teams in major sports are unable or unwilling to attend.
Rather than "Dream Team III," which will represent us in the Olympics but is too busy now with NBA and NCAA play, the best-known basketball player on the American team here is probably Rumeal Robinson, the former University of Michigan guard who plays for the Shreveport Crawdads of the CBA. Instead of a baseball roster of amateur all-stars that could play Cuba on fairly even terms, the United States' entry is the team from St. John's.
But the spirit of competition alone is enough for some, particularly in such an exotic setting. California, by far, has the largest contingent of athletes, outnumbering many nations. They range alphabetically from Ferdie Allas in karate to Yoko Zetterlund in volleyball, both here from San Diego, and in age from 16-year-old Jake Flores of Temecula in judo to 58-year-old Don Nygord of La Crescenta in shooting.
Athletes are competing in everything from bowling to squash. I know everyone back in the States will be waiting for those squash results.
And we had better get a Dream Team of bowlers together soon, or we probably won't even beat Nicaragua. The last time I went to a Pan Am Games, one of the frequent spectators at Cuba's new bowling alley was Fidel Castro, who later rolled a few lines himself, wearing his combat boots. Castro was also a regular at the basketball arena, where he rose from his chair repeatedly to do the wave.
I have no idea what, or whom, to expect here in Argentina. A bus that took me the few miles from the airport to downtown Mar Del Plata went around and around town longer than the entire flight.
Descending a slope that made San Francisco look like Kansas, the front end of the bus struck the pavement at such an angle that the bus couldn't turn. Stuck between a bus and a hard place at this moment, I had no particular good feeling for the spirit of competition. All I wanted was to be back in California, where driving seemed, by comparison, safe.
Later, my waiter, Omar, at dinner popped open a bottle of free champagne, if for no other reason than to say welcome to Argentina. For me, this could turn out to be even more fun than bowling with Fidel.