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Cuban Cleared for Kayak Competition

September 18, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Angel Perez escaped Cuba to make a better life for himself. He’s succeeded with that goal in the United States, and now he’s finally getting his chance to repay his new nation.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport decided Monday that Perez, a 1992 Olympic kayaker for his native land, can compete for the U.S. team in Sydney even though he’s been a citizen for only a year.

The U.S. Olympic Committee apparently argued successfully that Perez gave up his Cuban citizenship when he defected in 1993, therefore meeting the three-year waiting period to change nationalities.

``I’ve been waiting for so long for this,″ Perez said. ``I want to be able to give back to the country that has given me everything. I will do my best to represent them well and bring a medal back to the USA.″

CAS did not plan to release details of its decision until Tuesday. The same three-person panel that ruled in favor of Perez had supported an International Olympic Committee stance against him just last week.

``I can’t believe it,″ said Perez, who will compete in the two-man and four-man kayak sprints beginning Sept. 26. ``I had my bags packed to go back to the U.S. I didn’t expect the decision to go in my favor. Finally, there was some justice.″

Perez competed for Cuba in the 1992 Olympics, then declared political asylum and pledged allegiance to the United States the following year. He became a permanent resident in 1995 and a citizen last September.

Perez, who lives in Miami, has been on the U.S. national team since 1997, competing in the last three world championships as an American. He’s considered one of the country’s top two paddlers.

Problems began this summer after he was named to the Olympic squad. Last month, the IOC said he couldn’t compete in Sydney because of the three-year rule.

Perez came anyway and marched in the opening ceremony days after CAS turned down an appeal of the IOC ruling. In its written decision, CAS said ``there is no rule of `fairness’ to be derived from the Olympic charter.″

CAS decisions cannot be appealed, but the USOC skirted that rule by turning in a second application in Perez’s name.

As part of the second try, the USOC included a letter from a Cuban attorney that said Perez legally lost his Cuban citizenship when he defected. There also was a letter from the U.S. ambassador to Australia saying the U.S. government has viewed Perez as a ``national″ since ’93.

``I think the letter from the ambassador had some sway on them, but the letter from the Cuban lawyer had the most effect,″ USOC general counsel Mark Muedeking said.

A big reason for the turnaround likely was being able to squeeze Perez in under a new interpretation or re-reading of the existing rules. CAS clearly did not want to set a new precedent for fear of creating a way for so-called nation-hopping.

``They really wanted to do what was fair this last time,″ Muedeking said. ``They worked very hard.″

Now it is Perez’s turn to work hard. The U.S. K-4 squad was a close fourth at the last two world championships, meaning with a slight improvement it has a realistic chance to win a medal.

``Finally this is over and now we can concentrate on what we came here to do,″ coach Jerzy Dziadkowiec said.

No matter how the team does, Perez already is part of an upset winner. USOC officials said they don’t remember another protracted battle that ended in victory.

``It was the right thing to do,″ said USOC chief executive Norm Blake. ``He certainly deserves to represent our country.″

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