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Pan American Games highlighted by two major surprises

By the time the 10th Pan American Games ended Sunday, the United States was so laden with gold, silver, and bronze medals that even the Franklin Mint had to be a tad envious. The home team collected an embarrassment of riches - a record 369 medals, more than twice the totals of chief rivals Cuba (175) or Canada (162). When historians look back at this athletic fiesta, however, they will find that a Costa Rican swimmer and the Brazilian men's basketball team turned in the the two most striking achievements during 16 days of competition at the crossroads of America.

Silvia Poll, a powerful 6 ft. 2 in. freestyle and backstroke sensation, not only won her country's first-ever swimming medals, she wound up as the most decorated individual star of the entire games, with three golds, three silvers, and two bronzes.

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Brazil's basketball team, meanwhile, pulled a stunning 120-115 upset of a heavily favored US men's team to win the gold at the conclusion of the Western Hemisphere's quadrennial sports extravaganza.

Both feats seemed to assume extra inspirational importance, since they proved that Central and South American athletes don't have to be overwhelmed, as they often are, by the athletic superpowers in this competition.

Even with the US ``varsity'' off at the Pan Pacific swim meet in Australia, there is little question that Poll faced very strong competition at Indy's sparkling natatorium and that her times would probably have held up against those of her missing rivals. The US still swamped the rest of the competition, taking first place in 27 of 32 events; but not even this domination could overshadow what Costa Rica's aquatic Cinderella did to open swimming eyes - proving that talent and heart can overcome the absence of high-powered programs and an abundance of facilities.

Brazil's basketball victory ranks right up there among the all-time shockers of any major Olympic-style event. It was every bit as surprising as the US hockey team's defeat of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, and included an added wrinkle. The win was accomplished on the road, in the most hoop-happy state of basketball's national birthplace.

``In all the history of basketball, no one has done anything like this to beat the Americans in their own house. Americans will never forget it,'' said Jose Medalha, assistant coach of the Brazilian team.

The loss, which snapped a 34-game winning streak, was the first for the US men's team since 1971, when the Brazilians secured the gold after Cuba beat the Americans. This time, the US didn't appear to be leaving anything to chance, pulling together a roster of blue-chip collegians that crushed every team but Puerto Rico on the way to the final. Then in the championship game, the Americans held a seemingly insurmountable 20-point lead late in the first half. But unlike Brazil's women's team, which had been worn down earlier in the day in a 111-87 defeat to the gold-medal winning US squad, the men adorned in Brazil's green and yellow came to life in the second half. Shooting stars Oscar Schmidt (46 points for the game) and Marcel Souza (31) had hot hands that couldn't be cooled off. When the buzzer sounded, slack-jawed American players and fans watched in disbelief as the deliriously happy Brazilian celebrated. The spirit of this display had virtually no equal during a fortnight of competition in 31 sports.

The Brazilians' glee spilled over to the closing ceremonies in the Hoosier Dome, where many of the athletes, spurred on by a Latin beat, spontaneously joined in a huge conga line. The funmaking placed a nice finishing smile on an event that experienced its sobering moments.

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Early on there was confusion when space ran out at the athletes' village. More people showed up than had RSVP-ed, and rather than be inhospitable, the gracious Hoosier hosts eventually found everyone rooms, but not until the situation had caused some critcism.

Then there was the flap over the US State Department's refusal to issue a visa to a Chilean athlete reportedly involved in brutal intelligence activities. That storm eventually passed, as did criticisms over inconsistencies in the drug testing, which had become such a hot issue in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1983. The most persistent distraction was the friction that stemmed from having the largest Cuban athletic delegation in the US since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. At various times throughout the games, confrontations occurred between anti-Castro individuals and Cuban athletes, some of whom seemed disinclined to simply avoid the verbal taunts.

The local organizing committee, city officials, and the Indianapolis police department diligently and diplomatically worked to keep a lid on this explosive situation. There were some outbreaks of violence, but nothing so major as to mar the overall success of the games, which were awarded to sports-minded Indianapolis 2 years ago after cities in Chile and Ecuador had to back out.

If, at times, there were minor organizational flaws, the overriding friendliness of Indy's citizens and Pan Am volunteers was an offsetting factor.

The city rolled out the red carpet and showed off a collection of athletic facilities that few cities of any size can match.

Havana, which will host the '91 games, certainly has a tough act to follow. Cuba is eager for the opportunity though, and despite certain reservations about the closing ceremonies here, the Cubans attended the finale to see the torch passed along to them.

During the games, they shone in boxing, weightlifting, and baseball, where the Cuban team came back to win the gold medal game against the US, 13-9, after having a long winning streak ended by a ninth-inning American home run in dramatic preliminary action.

Of course Uncle Sam's side had plenty of opportunties to cheer, too. Among the biggest US stars were diver Greg Louganis, who swept the men's Pan Am springboard and platform titles for a third time; long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who tied the women's world record with a leap of 24-5; and gymnasts Sabrina Mar and Scott Johnson, who won the all-around titles.

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