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Cuba Turns These Athlete's Dreams into Political Issue


The Sydney Olympics are underway without four athletes who should be there.

Long jumper Niurka Montalvo, water polo player Ivan Perez, kayaker Angel Perez and diver Arturo Miranda are not competing because of politics, although that sort of thing is not supposed to happen any longer in a more harmonious international sports world.

None of the athletes, all Cuban defectors, are at the Games because Cuba refused to give them permission to participate. Their crime? They chose to live outside Cuba without government approval, a decision akin to treason in Fidel Castro's communist regime.

Montalvo, the women's world champion, and Ivan Perez fled Cuba for Spain less than three years ago and became Spanish citizens. Angel Perez, who is not related to Ivan, came to the United States in 1993 and became a citizen last September. Miranda defected to Canada.

Under International Olympic Committee rules, an athlete who has competed in the Olympics and changes his or her nationality must wait three years before competing for their new country in the Olympics, World Championships or other major international competition, or receive a waiver from his or her former country. Cuba said no.

Appeals by Spanish, American and Canadian officials fell on deaf ears. Cuba claims the athletes were "stolen" by anti-Castro elements and isn't willing to forgive.

"I'm an athlete and I have dedicated all my life to sports," Montalvo told Spanish National Radio. "Before I used to do the best I could for Cuba, and now my situation has changed and now I do my best for Spain. I stay out of politics."

U.S. Olympic kayaker Peter Newton feels for his teammate.

"The Olympics is about sports, and Cuba is turning this into a political issue," Newton told the Miami Herald. "Angel is our best athlete and should be allowed to compete."

Leave it to Cuba to trample the ideals of fair play and goodwill. The cases of Montalvo, Miranda and the Perezes are the latest examples of how Cuba and its propaganda machine puts a self-serving spin on every issue.

For years, Havana has downplayed defections by Cuban athletes, sometimes refusing to comment about the reasons for the departures to avoid mixing politics and sports. It's the same type of sidestepping once used by countries in the former Soviet bloc when faced with tough questions.

Was Boris left off the team because he's not a party member? Has your gymnastics judge formed an alliance with others from Eastern Europe to sabotage athletes from the West? Why can't your baseball players sign with major league clubs?

Nyet, nyet and Quien sabe?

But now Cuban officials are showing their true colors. They are offering ample proof that they don't really subscribe to the separation of politics and sports. They also are being petty, and their reprehensible attitude is not limited to the retaliation against Montalvo, Miranda and the Perezes.

Earlier this month, Cuba lashed out at the IOC for rejecting its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, calling it a slap on the face of Third World countries by an organization more concerned with commercialism and mercantilism than pure athletic competition.

Which gives a hint of what a baffling paradox Cuba is. On one hand, it vows to uphold the sanctity of amateur sports and condemns professionalism. On the other, it bids to host the 2008 Olympics with the hope of rescuing its disastrous economy with profits from the largest sporting event in the world.

And make no mistake, Cuba isn't interested in all the pageantry, glamour and historical significance of the Olympics. They want hard currency provided by global TV and radio broadcasting rights, and by millions of tourists during the Games.

Cuba, as usual, is missing the point. One of the questions in the IOC questionnaire given to prospective Olympic Games hosts, such as Havana, was: "Are there any laws in your country, or other means, in order to combat doping in sport?"

That one was a dagger for Cuban officials, who for months engaged the IOC and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track and field's governing body, in a bitter battle over the two-year suspension of high jumper Javier Sotomayor for cocaine use.

Sotomayor, the world record holder and 1992 Olympic champion, was banned from competition for two years after testing positive at the Pan American Games last year. Cuba claimed the urine sample somehow was tainted and refused to exclude Sotomayor from national and nonsanctioned meets.

"The IAAF can take whatever decision it likes," said a defiant Alberto Juantorena, head of the Cuban Athletics Federation and a former Olympic 400- and 800-meter champion.

The Cubans got their way in early August when the IAAF buckled and cleared Sotomayor to compete in Sydney, prompting several Scandinavian countries to file a protest with the organization. Arne Ljungvist, an IAAF official, maintains Sotomayor has tested positive for cocaine since the Pan Am Games.

Among the reasons mentioned by the IAAF for lifting the suspension was Sotomayor's "humanitarian work."

Too bad the Cubans don't feel as compassionate toward their former athletes, who have done nothing more ghastly than move to other countries.

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