Competing for Cuba, Pérez was a gold medalist in kayaking at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana. He also represented Cuba in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. But, dispirited about his personal future after athletics, he defected to the United States a year later, arriving in Miami with $60 in savings and no immediate hope of continuing his kayaking career. Instead, he took a job installing security alarms.
After several years away from serious competition, Pérez returned to his sport and rose through the American ranks. He became a United States citizen on Sept. 25, 1999, shortly after qualifying in a four-man kayak for the 2000 Summer Games next month in Sydney, Australia. He hoped his boat would contend for a medal.
As it turns out, however, Cuba still has a strong and unyielding grip on his athletic career.
Having suffered the defection or departure of an estimated 100 athletes in recent years, outraged Cuban sports officials are reacting against what they consider to be the theft of runners, jumpers and boxers they have trained. The Cuban Olympic Committee has refused to let Pérez compete for the United States in Sydney and has similarly refused to allow the world-champion long jumper Niurka Montalvo to compete in the Summer Games for Spain, her adopted country.
This week the contentiousness reached a new level when Cuba removed a group of 30 of its athletes who were training under a reciprocal agreement in Spain. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that only diplomats, not sportsmen, could resolve the heated matter between the two countries. The United States Olympic Committee said yesterday that it would petition the I.O.C. for relief from its eligibility rules so that Pérez could compete in Sydney, even over Cuba's objections.
Cuba's refusal in the two high-profile cases falls within the rules governing the I.O.C., whose charter states that an athlete who switches nationalities must wait three years to compete for the new country. Neither Pérez nor Montalvo, who became a Spanish citizen last year, meet that requirement. The rule is meant to prevent athletes from changing nationalities for convenience. Frequently, waivers are granted in the spirit of international cooperation. Last week China waived the rule so that Yueling Chen, a former Olympic champion race walker, could compete in Sydney for the United States.
Cuba, however, remains adamant in its refusal.
"It is absolutely unfair that the rich countries -- based on their economic capacity, offers of scholarships or gifts, conditions of life and other elements -- take away the sporting talents of the poor nations, just as they rob the scientific brains," José Ramon Fernández, the president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, said in remarks carried last week in the state-controlled newspaper Granma.
In a letter sent last March to the U.S.O.C. declining Pérez's request to compete for the United States, Fernández wrote, "Taking into consideration the rejection of our athletics, and also the fact that the people of Cuba generate the funds and other resources for the preparation of our athletes and provide training facilities, education, medical services and meals at no charge, it was unseemly for Mr. Pérez to have abandoned our delegation in the surreptitious manner in which he did, after having reached a high level of ability in his sport."
At a news conference Thursday in Madrid, Alberto Juantorena, the head of Cuba's track and field federation, accused Montalvo of "abandoning" her homeland to marry a Spaniard. Montalvo competed in the long jump for Cuba in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but has lived in Spain the last three years. She won the 1999 world championship for Spain. Her absence in Sydney could remove a hurdle from Marion Jones's attempt to win five gold medals.
"How are the Cuban people supposed to feel?" said Juantorena, who won the 400- and 800-meter races at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. "They have supported her training for 16 years so she can compete under another flag."
He added: "Cuba develops talent. It doesn't rob talent. This is a trafficking of people. Of skin, of muscle, of bone."
Last month Bill Hybl, the president of the U.S.O.C., traveled to Havana to plead Pérez's case. The Cubans were cordial, Hybl said, but they declined to grant the kayaker a waiver. On Aug. 28, Hybl said yesterday, the U.S.O.C. will petition the I.O.C.'s executive board, arguing that Pérez's self-determination should prevail. The case could also be brought before the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Sydney, Hybl said.
"We didn't recruit him," Hybl said of Pérez. "He came to this country on his own volition, trained on his own, married on his own, had a child on his own."
The I.O.C. has been reluctant to intervene in such cases. Unless the U.S.O.C. can show that the rule does not apply to Pérez, "the I.O.C. will not get involved," said Franklin Servan-Schreiber, an I.O.C. spokesman.
Meanwhile, Pérez, who is 29, continues to train with his teammates in Mammoth, Calif., hoping that somehow his participation in Sydney will be approved. In a telephone interview, Pérez said the Cubans were using Montalvo and himself for propaganda purposes, trying to send a threatening signal to those who might be considering defection. He also said that American kayaking officials never alerted him to the Olympic eligibility rules until Cuba denied him in March.
"They are playing a political game,"
Pérez said of the Cubans. "They like to
be in the news of the world. It makes
them feel they are in control of something. They are trying to make an
example of me. It's amazing. Seven years I
have been out of Cuba, but they still
have control of me."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company