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Cubans, Minus Three, Arrive in Atlanta

July 17, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ The only thing Cuban athletes are thinking about is gold. At least that’s the party line.

The defection of three countrymen _ all likely to seek lucrative careers in the United States _ is seen more as a political ploy than a weakness of the Cuban system.

``The U.S. is so good in sports, so strong, the only way they can hurt us is in this manner,″ said Milaida Enrique Parrado, a center on the Cuban women’s basketball team.

Twenty Cuban athletes arrived in Atlanta on Monday, and 278 others will be joining them to round out the country’s Olympic team. They won’t be joined by three star athletes who chose the weeks leading up to the games to flee their country.

Ramon Garbey and Joel Casamayor slipped away two weeks ago while the boxers were training in Mexico. Both men were stalwarts on the magnificent Cuban team, Casamayor having won a gold medal at the Barcelona Games four years ago and Garbey capturing the world championship in 1993.

A week after those defections rocked the Cubans, the country’s best starting pitcher, Rolando Arrojo, deserted the baseball team in Georgia during its pre-Olympic tour.

``Politics has nothing to do with sports,″ Parrado said while strolling through the Olympic Village on Tuesday. ``I don’t care about politics. It doesn’t interest me. I don’t like it.″

In the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, the Cuban men’s volleyball team practiced at a women’s college as if nothing had happened.

``The defections do not affect me at all,″ coach Juan Diaz said. ``Three, six, nine can leave and it still would not affect me. I don’t expect any defections from my team. They’ve been together for many years. They’ve been traveling around the world in the last year and they know what their task is.″

``We are fixated on the competition,″ added one of his players, Alain Roca, who was speaking Spanish but had a definite American tinge to his hairstyle: a Nike emblem shaved into the left side of his head.

To Ricardo Vantes, a member of the volleyball team for 11 years, the thought of fleeing one’s homeland is repulsive. He can’t understand how money alone would be enough to make someone leave everything behind.

``Maybe they had troubles with their family. Maybe they had trouble with the politics. Maybe they had trouble with their sports,″ he said of the three defectors. ``As for me, I feel very satisfied where I am. In order to abandon one’s country, one has to think about abandoning one’s mother.″

Parrado called the defections ``a betrayal.″

``For those of us who enter athletics at an early age, everything is free, everything is taken care of,″ she said. ``It’s very hard when someone leaves once they’ve grown up, especially with all the problems we’ve had during the special period.″

The ``special period″ is a distinctly Cuban term for the hardships the country has endured since the Soviet Union fell apart and the U.S. embargo transformed common household items into luxuries.

To the casual observer, however, the athletes seem largely unaffected by the situation back home. When the volleyball team arrived for its practice at Agnes Scott College, the players were decked out in Oakley sunglasses and snappy uniforms provided by a Japanese company, Mizuno.

Diaz was more concerned that the buses that were running behind schedule than the thought of any defections. There didn’t appear to be any special precautions taken with the volleyball team, which was escorted by four U.S. marshals who watched the practice from a corner of the gym and even helped retrieve errant balls that came their way.

On the other hand, the baseball team _ minus Arrojo _ wouldn’t reveal where its practices were being held. With the World Series champion Atlanta Braves playing right down the street, a source said the team was working out on a baseball field within the Olympic Village instead of venturing out like the volleyball squad.

``I don’t believe there’s any extra vigilance,″ Parrado said. ``Whoever is going to leave is going to leave; whoever is going to stay is going to stay _ with or without someone guarding us.″

None of the Cuban athletes would use the defections as a reason to bash the United States, which has had tense relations with their country ever since Fidel Castro took power nearly four decades ago.

``The problem isn’t between us, it’s between governments,″ Vantes said. ``The people of the United States are marvelous.″

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