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Cuba's open secret: Fidel-ity to sports

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A SMALL busload of American journalists was pulling out of Havana's sprawling sporting goods factory when a shop foreman waved the vehicle to a halt. In a gesture of friendship, she stepped aboard, opened a box of freshly stitched baseballs, and distributed one to each visitor. The balls carried the initials L.P.V. for Listo Para Vencer - ``Ready to Win.'' That's what Cuban athletes are these days.

About 450 of Cuba's best have arrived in Indianapolis for tomorrow's opening of the 10th Pan American Games, running through Aug. 23. (Preview of the Games, Page 16.) Counting coaches and officials, the delegation totals about 650, possibly the largest official Cuban entourage allowed to enter the United States since Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959. These athletes have indeed come ready to win, since under Dr. Castro's communist regime, success in sports is a goal worth pursuing and sacrificing for.

Cuba's economy sputters along, but the country annually pumps nearly $140 million into its nationalized sports program, which moves talented youngsters up the competitive ladder from provincial to national teams and sometimes into special school curriculums.

Sports are near and dear to the hearts of Cubans, whose leader was once considered a pitcher worth scouting by the Washington Sena tors (not the congressmen). Baseball is as much the national pastime in Cuba as it is in the States, and Americans may be surprised to learn that Cuba brings the amateur world baseball champions to the Pan Am competition. (Professional sports were abolished after the revolution and no admission is charged to attend games.)

The Pan Am baseball team is favored to win the gold a fifth straight time, and at the end of this quadrennial event, Cuban athletes could cart home more medal hardware than any other visiting nation.

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