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For the Good of Cuba : Sharing Profits With His Country Is Price Runner Is Obliged to Pay

March 01, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His memories are as warm as that summer's day, when he ran through the streets of Havana, accompanied by his family on their Chinese bicycles, and entered the stadium where 35,000 voices were yelling, "Cuba, Cuba, Cuba."

The man and the country.

A population that reveres its baseball players had fallen in love with a second baseman who couldn't field a ground ball.

"I was like this," Alberto Cuba said, pantomiming a ball rolling through his legs into center field.

He couldn't play ball, but he could run, and the sports school he attended decided that he should be a 3,000-meter man, and then 5,000 and, as he got older, 10,000 meters.

At 33, Cuba runs marathons, as he did in 1991 when he won the event in the Pan-American Games in his homeland and gave his gold medal to Fidel Castro as a birthday present. And as he will Sunday as the top-seeded man in the field of the Los Angeles Marathon.

He is Cuba's best, and his gold-medal time in the Pan-Am Games, 2:19:27 in 100-degree temperatures and 100% humidity, was dwarfed by the 2:10:40 he ran last year at 7,000 feet in the Mexico City Marathon. If he is fastest Sunday, he earns $15,000. If he shaves 41 seconds off his best time, he earns an additional $25,000 and the undying gratitude of Bill Burke, the marathon's president who wants a sub-2:10 time badly.

Cuba will get to keep some of it. "I don't know. They will take maybe 50%, or 40% or 70%," he said.

"They" is Cuba's sports organization, which exports athletes for the hard currency it uses to try to produce another Alberto.

That's the way things work there. "We should support our athletes and I want to do that," he said, the company line coming through an interpreter.

He is a product of that company line, enrolled in a sports school at 6 to learn baseball and judo, then sent to a school to run when he was 11. He has run ever since, almost all of his steps in Latin America and now, for the first time, in the United States.

And he will listen for the few voices who will yell, "Cuba, Cuba, Cuba." Jose will be there, he said. So will Pedro, but they call him Rudy. And Pasqual and Maribel. They were friends from childhood who floated away on rafts to freedom in Miami, and they call him from time to time. He has not seen them for years.

He has never called. "I don't know if I can," he said, but they talked Thursday on the telephone when he got to Los Angeles. He has letters to them from their families at home, and he said his friends are getting on a plane so he will have some help on Sunday.

"You can always do better when you have support, have some friends to help you," he said.

They will talk, probably about the freedom they enjoy in Miami, away from the lines that mark Cuba's shortages, and of the right to vote and the baseball they can watch on television and of the cars and stereos and other things that stamp them as Americans now.

And their talk will fall on deaf ears. "I am an athlete," he said. "I have my own ideas, and they are well-defined, but I am not a politician. And I have a family."

Wife Marita Sanchez is an obstetrician and 3-year-old daughter Maglin is a budding ballerina. "I don't want her to run," he said, smiling. "It is too hard."

He is in Los Angeles because of a friendship struck up with Carlos Godoy in Mexico City. Godoy is the elite athlete consultant for the Los Angeles Marathon, and he was able to sell Cuba on running here and Alberto Juantorena, the former 800-meter runner and now Cuba's sports president, on letting him. Godoy and Juantorena are friends from their days of competition.

"I wanted to run in the United States because the best runners run here," said Cuba. He also wanted to come to try to get a Dodger and Laker uniform, a big deal in Havana, even though he is a fan of the Chicago Bulls and likes the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays.

To win, he must handle a lackluster field whose quality picked up slightly Friday with the addition of 33-year-old Salvador Garcia, winner of the New York and Rotterdam marathons, and which includes the champions of five Latin American marathons.

The best of the rest are probably Moroccans Driss Dacha and El-Maati Chaham, and Wodajo Bulti of Ethiopia, who has run 2:08:44 but did it nine years ago.

The women's field is led by Tatyana Zabrialova of Ukraine, Irina Bogacheva of Kyrgyzstan, Nadezhda Ilyina of Russia and Lornah Kiplagat of Kenya, who is running her first marathon.

Cuba, who has not run competitively since suffering a back injury late last summer, said he is aiming for a 2:10 to 2:12 time but acknowledges that his best could be 2:13 or 2:14, "if I don't feel good."

"Maybe we can run faster," he said of the field, "but we won't know until Sunday."

After that, he said, he will return to his two-bedroom apartment in Havana, where success would bring more adulation.

"Baseball is our national sport, but running is our national sport too," he said. "Especially since the Olympics.

"In Cuba, it is good to be an elite athlete, but you have to be the best. If you are good in sports, you are an idol in Cuba. Everybody in Havana knows me."

And if you aren't as successful?

"If he doesn't do good, he gets less support [from the government's sports organization]," Cuba said.

The incentive is plain, and it's not just the money he can win. He runs to keep up a standard of living . . . and to keep the memories alive.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Facts and Figures

* WHEN: Sunday, 8:45 a.m.

* START: 6th and Figueroa streets.

* RECORDS: Men--Martin Mondragon, Mexico, 2:10:19 (1988); Women--Madina Biktagirova, Commonwealth of Independent States, 2:26:23 (1992).

* TV: Channel 13.

* RADIO: KACD/KBCD-FM (103.1).

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