Originally created 08/08/99

Pan Am athletes excel, but beware the cigars



WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- It's time to empty the Pan American Games notebook:

Every time I attend one of these Olympic-style sporting events, I am blown away by the dedication of the athletes. From weightlifting to tae kwon do to soccer, they give everything they have to their sport.

They are single-minded in their pursuit of excellence. Most of them do it knowing they have no chance to win a medal. They do it to test themselves, to see whether they can respond to the inner challenge of being their best.

It's a solitary pursuit, even on team sports. Each person on the team is fighting for a spot that hundreds of other people want. So even though there is a camaraderie among teammates, the individual must face that challenge alone.

On Friday, I watched a young woman absolutely break down after her weightlifting event. She couldn't speak for several minutes after being consoled by coaches and friends. She felt she had let herself down by not lifting more weight. And this was after she had won the gold medal.

These are pretty high standards. But as I have watched and talked to these great athletes for two weeks, I have been struck by how they're not that much different from the thousands of ordinary people who competed in the Georgia Games two weeks ago.

Sure, the people in the Georgia Games don't run as fast, jump as high or possess as much strength as most of the elite athletes. But the dedication is the same. There is the same pressure to test yourself under the rigors of competition.

For the elite athletes, training and competition are their jobs. They get paid by sports federations and national federations to raise their efforts to the highest levels. For athletes in competitions like the Georgia Games, they train and compete after going to school or after working all day. I'm not sure which is the greater achievement.

* * *

Watching Itoro Umoh of Hephzibah perform on the basketball court is an absolute delight. She puts so much energy and excitement into a game, you can't help smiling. Coming to this team, she knew she would have to adjust her role.

Instead of the high-scoring star that she was at Clemson, she became a supporting player who could give the team a boost when it needed that. Her Pan Am coach said she adds a spark coming off the bench that no one else did.

And she has remained herself: bubbly, outgoing, yet humble. When I talked to her last week she sounded surprised that anyone in Augusta would still remember her.

It's hard to imagine that she wouldn't be an asset to some WNBA team. Her dream is to make it to the pros. I hope she makes it.

*****

This comes under the category of too wacky to be fiction. One of the big concerns in Winnipeg this week has been a mysterious sticky substance covering everyone's cars, sidewalks, sunglasses, heads -- just about anything that has been under the city's many trees.

Turns out it's aphid poop.

It seems the hot, dry summer has produced a bumper crop of aphids, which reproduce every seven to 10 days. They eat a lot of sap from tree leaves and quickly pass it out through their digestive systems.

People at the city's Insect Control Branch say that it's not harmful but that you ought to wash it off your car at least daily.

Mark this up as reason No. 1,283 why I'm glad I live in Augusta and not Canada.

*****

Last week, in poking some good-natured fun at Canada, I mentioned their dollar was worth only about two-thirds of the American dollar. I think I have discovered why.

They spend too much buying extra vowels for their words. Instead of check, it's "cheque." Color becomes "colour." Honor is "honour." Behavior is "behaviour."

Vanna White could retire here. Dan Quayle could be president here.

*****

The Pan Am Games organizers announced they would use 16,000 balls of various sizes, shapes and colors in these games.

*****

The sales tax in Winnipeg is 14 percent. Reason No. 1,284 why I'm glad I live in Augusta.

The main reason American tourists come to Canada, other than to fish or experience aphid poop, is to buy Cuban cigars. Since our country put an embargo on Cuban goods, you can't buy their cigars in the United States.

That has created a problem because now a whole generation has grown up hearing how great Cuban cigars are, without having the opportunity to taste one.

Meanwhile, Canadians are swaggering around feeling superior because they can buy Cuban cigars any time they want, even though they may have to mortgage their house to afford one. Canada is one of Cuba's biggest trading partners. (Which explains what Canada does with all that aphid poop.)

Knowing that a lot of Americans would be at the Pan Am Games and that they would be looking for Cuban cigars but not wanting to pay the regular, inflated price, the Cubans brought thousands of cigars with them.

This was confirmed by Canadian customs agents. Athletes and members of the Cuban delegation were all over Winnipeg last week selling genuine Cuban cigars at one-tenth the cost in local cigar stores.

Besides the price, the smokers should have been tipped off because the cigars did not have the warning label that says, "Smoking these may cause you to grow a big, bushy beard and wear military fatigues." (Note to my wife: I didn't buy any.)

But when the lucky smokers lit up, something didn't smell right, literally. Winnipeg authorities brought in some experts to examine the cigars, and they found low-quality, inferior tobacco and tobacco leaves filled with sawdust, insects and feces. No more discount sales. Can you imagine the phone call the sports and cigar attache had to make back to Havana?

"Hello, Fidel? This is Jose at the Pan Am Games."

"So, things are going well, eh? We have won many medals."

"Well, Fidel, we have, but the Canadians have won more than we, for the first time since 1967."

"OK, so they won some medals. But at least you dumped all those special cigars we made for them, right? I can just imagine their faces as they light up our Havana rat dung special. Haw, haw, haw."

"Well, Fidel, not exactly. They caught us. We couldn't sell them. We took a capitalist bath. Please don't send me on another friendship tour to Russia."

"Hmmm. Not to worry. We will just ship back the rest of that aphid poop the Canadians keep sending us and package it as organic Olympic hair spray. Those crazy Americans will pour across the border to smuggle it back into their country if they think it's something they can't get at home. Besides, we can smuggle the cigars into Washington. They might not even smoke them. Just remember to bring me back some maple syrup and a few vowels."