By KEVIN GRAY | Associated Press Writer
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic
The race for the most gold medals at the Pan American Games usually is between the United States and Cuba.
This year is no different.
“It’s again a struggle between the two countries,” said Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra, a Cuban delegation member. “May the best team win.”
Through 10 days of competition, the countries were running 1-2 in the hunt for gold in the latest chapter of a rivalry that plays out on baseball diamonds, gymnastics mats and boxing rings every four years at the regional championships.
Heading into Tuesday’s events, the United States had 69 golds to Cuba’s 53. The United States also held the top spot in overall medals with 167, compared to 110 for Cuba. Brazil was third with 75 medals, including 19 golds.
Some Cuban athletes couldn’t hide their excitement over their early gold rush. But they downplayed talk of a rivalry with the Americans, and instead focused on what one player called “team goals.”
“All week we’ve said our goal is to get more medals than we ever have,” said Cuban Yurisleidis Luepetey, who grabbed one in the women’s judo competition Sunday. “Just keep them coming ... that’s all I say.”
American officials said they had taken note of Cuba’s success. The Cubans swept gold in Greco-Roman wrestling, had strong performances in gymnastics and beat the U.S. women’s basketball team for the fifth time in a row to take the championship.
The two countries also face off in Tuesday’s baseball final, with Cuba hoping for a ninth straight gold medal at the games.
“The sports on the early part of program are the ones they generally do well in,” U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said. “Cuba always sends competitive teams to the Pan American Games, and they’ve done that again here.”
The Cubans got off to a rolling start last week, winning all seven finals in Greco-Roman wrestling, including a key victory by Mijian Lopez over American Rulon Gardner, the 2000 Olympic champion.
In gymnastics, Eric Lopez took four individual golds - in pommel horse, rings, vault and parallel bars - to take his overall tally to six golds. Cuba also won all four in judo.
The United States, meanwhile, has had inspired showings in track and field and shooting. The Americans took first in the men’s and women’s 400-meter relays, and the women’s 1,600 relay. The United States also swept the 100 for the first time since the 1987 Pan Ams.
However, the next few days of competition will offer the United States an opportunity to widen its lead. Swimming events offer 30 medals in a sport typically dominated by the Americans. U.S. swimmers took three of the five golds up for grabs Monday.
“They have a big advantage there,” Alvarez Cambra said. “That’s probably one of our weak points. We’ll just be hoping to hold on to our second place in the golds.”
Indeed, that is how the two countries have finished in the previous two games. In Winnipeg four years ago, the United States took 106 golds to Cuba’s 69.
Cuba has only beaten the United States once in total golds in recent competition. In 1991, when the games were held in Havana, Cuba carried away 140 gold medals, 10 more than the Americans.
Still, officials from both countries said they have reason to cheer.
“I think we’ve fared very well so far,” Seibel said.
“Our success makes Cubans happy,” Alvarez Cambra said. “They’re watching most of the games live back in Cuba, where I’m sure everyone is celebrating.”