Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Pan Am enters race against time

OVERDUE Teams arrived at the Pan American Games to find unfinished quarters, an incomplete schedule and no assurances of them being finished in time

REUTERS , SANTO DOMINGO

Dauri Javier Aguirro, 10, left, waits for a late throw as Ale Veloz, 13, steals second on Thursday at the Complejo Deportivo baseball camp in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The Caribbean nation is the host of the Pan American Games.

PHOTO: AP

The Pan American Games, which claims to be one of the world's biggest sporting events but appears unable to stop the decline in its prestige, starts today with construction work still under way.

Host nation Dominican Republic has been fighting a losing battle to get venues and facilities ready in time for the games featuring 42 nations, 5,200 athletes and 41 sports but which is desperately short on big names.

Athletes arrived this week to find heavy construction material lying around the Olympic village where many rooms still lacked air conditioning despite the sticky tropical heat. Work was due to continue right up to the start of the action at many venues.

Argentina's rowing team found there was no drinking water or changing rooms after arriving for their first training session.

Uruguay's handball team were also suffering.

"When we arrived, we didn't have a training pitch and we just had to run around here [the Athletes Village]," said Mario Sanchez, one of the players.

"We haven't got air conditioning either, just a few fans which don't help much in this heat."

Officials were unable to give a schedule for the games -- which in the case of some sports was because there was none. The soccer program was only finalized at a meeting on Thursday, three days before the start of the competition.

Athletes and media, many already weary after long overnight flights, had to wait up to six hours at the airport for their credentials to be issued after printers broke down.

But the most serious situation involved the athletics track which on Thursday still had not been officially approved by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Pan American Sports Organization (ODEPA), said earlier in the week that if the approval was not given, the athletics, due to start on Tuesday, could not go ahead.

He said, however, on Thursday that he had been given verbal approval of the track.

No track would be yet another blow to an event which is struggling to keep its place in the world sporting calendar, mainly due to the reluctance of the US' top athletes to participate.

Since the late 1980s, the US has been sending largely B or C teams to the event.

In their absence, the main attractions are once again likely to be the Cubans -- who four years ago dominated the headlines with rumors of defections as much as their achievements on the field.

Cuba will this time be hoping to top their 1999 total of 69 gold medals, which put them second behind the US.

"We've come to compete hard, to leave our skin on the fields," said Jose Ramon Fernandez, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee.

Cuba's line-up includes long jumper Ivan Pedroso, hurdler Anier Garcia, javelin thrower Osleidys Menendez and hammer thrower Yipsi Moreno,

At the end of the 1999 games in Winnipeg, which produced only one world record, the organizing committee's chief executive officer Don Mackenzie suggested turning more events into qualifiers for the Olympics and reducing the number of sports to between 28 and 30.

But his advice has gone almost totally unheeded with 41 sports still included, only eight of which will provide qualification for the Athens Olympics next year.

As a result, the Games, which are too close for comfort to the world swimming championships in Barcelona last month and world athletics championships in Paris later in August, are again unlikely to raise an eyebrow outside Latin America.

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