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Steve Wulf/Atlanta

His nickname is El Gordo, the Fat Man, and he is both agent and metaphor. Joe Cubas, 35, a contractor from Miami, has orchestrated five defections from Cuba’s national baseball team, most recently on July 9, when ace pitcher Rolando Arrojo slipped into Cubas’ car, leaving his team’s exhibition tour. That incident, coupled with the defections in late June at the Mexican border of Cuban boxers Joel Casamayor and Ramon Garbey, have led to widespread speculation that the most exciting event at the Atlanta Olympics will be the long jump–from Cuba to the U.S.

Indeed, Cubas, who is going to Atlanta next week, has been quoted as predicting he might need a Greyhound bus for all the Cuban athletes. More significantly, all Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games officials and security personnel have been briefed by members of the Immigration and Naturalization Service on what to do in case a Cuban, a North Korean or an Iraqi asks for temporary asylum. (Basically, they were instructed to isolate and protect the Olympian until an ins representative arrives on the scene.) And at the boxing venue on the Georgia Tech campus, officials were fully expecting the defection of one or more of the Cuban boxers, who could still win as many as five gold medals despite the flights of bantamweight Casamayor and light heavyweight Garbey.

“That Greyhound-bus quote was taken out of context,” says Cubas, “but I do expect something to happen in Atlanta. At one time or another, I have talked to every member of the Cuban team. I try to educate them first, help them make their decision. If their decision is to leave Cuba, then I’ll be there for them.” Even on the Cubans’ recent swing through the South, Cubas could be seen lurking behind their dugout. Rick Lawes, who covers amateur baseball for USA Today, recalls a memorable image from the U.S.-Cuba game in Columbia, South Carolina, which Cuba won, 4-2: “As the sun went down, you could see his silhouette creeping across the diamond. He literally was a shadowy figure.”

It has been erroneously reported that Cubas is representing the boxers. But for the Cuban baseball players, he has come to stand for freedom and the major leagues–and millions of U.S. dollars. After he took two defecting pitchers, Osvaldo Fernandez and Livan Hernandez, to the Dominican Republic last winter to establish their free-agent status, they signed very sweet deals, with the San Francisco Giants and Florida Marlins respectively. Says Cubas: “The money has less to do with their defecting than their desire for freedom or their wish to play at the highest level of competition.”

When President Fidel Castro recently addressed 170 Cuban athletes leaving for Atlanta, he made mention of the defections, calling the 28-year-old Arrojo a “Judas who sold out his country for 12 gold coins.” Castro also told his Olympians, “More than medals of gold, silver or bronze, what interests us is the medals of morals and honor.” Cuban baseball officials, who are used to this sort of thing by now, were more blase and fatalistic about Arrojo’s departure, even though Arrojo pitched six shutout innings against Team USA on June 29. Third baseman Omar Linares, the player long and most coveted by major league scouts, told Lawes, “It’s a personal decision. Each person must live his own life-style. But [every Cuban player] is more dedicated now to our purpose.” Evaristo Ruiz, head of Cuba’s baseball delegation, likened Arrojo’s defection to an injury or illness. “He is replaced,” said Ruiz.

Cuba has had to replace many athletes since 1993, when 50 of 450 competitors defected during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico. But it is a tribute to the power of Cuba’s sports machine that despite the defections and the economic depression known on the island as the “special period,” the nation is still expected to do well not only in baseball and boxing but also in judo, fencing, wrestling, weight lifting and track and field. Contrary to popular belief, Cuban athletes are not constantly watched by security personnel. Each of Cubas’ five defections went off without incident. Cuban authorities even allow such loyal athletes as high jumper Javier Sotomayor to travel the world freely.

So if there are defections in Atlanta, they will not involve midnight scrambles over barbed wire or high-speed chases. They will, in fact, probably be like the first Olympian defection, at the 1948 Games in London, when Marie Provaznikova, leader of the Czech women’s contingent, simply refused to return to Czechoslovakia. The drama will be in the number of Cubans or the names. Is it possible that Felix Savon, the great heavyweight boxer, or a flame-throwing pitcher named Omar Luis or even Linares might bolt before receiving his gold medal? “Anything is possible,” says El Gordo. “Something will happen.”

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