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Athletics: Hell in Havana tracking the Horse

THEY CALLED Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban double Olympic champion of 1976, "El Caballo" - the Horse. I presume it was because of the length of his stride.

Unless, of course, that immortal piece of BBC TV commentary by the late Ron Pickering - "And now Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class" - was closer to the mark than... But no. I expect it was the stride length. That was what I tried to keep thinking when I met him.

In retrospect, our meeting - at the Sport City complex in Havana - was unusual, given that the great man was 100 kilometres away at the time. That was, according to the Cuban officials whom I had telephoned with increasing desperation in the preceding days.

"Senor Juantorena has gone away on vacation," I was told. "One hundred kilometres away." "I am sorry," I was told, "Senor Juantorena is no longer in Havana. He is on vacation." And how far...? "One hundred kilometres."

They seemed so certain about the distance, these officials. It was almost enough to make a person suspicious - that is, a person whose faculties were not over-manned by a rising sense of panic. As mine were.

My airy plan to stay on after Havana's staging of the 1992 World Cup of athletics in order to write a piece about Cuban sport had one tragic flaw: after the Lord Mayor's show there was nothing to report. Especially now the Lord Mayor himself - Juantorena headed Cuban sports development - was on vacation.

Colleagues had flown back home, clutching dollar receipts for their outrageous phone bills. The event organisers had disappeared. The sub-press centre in the old Hilton Hotel had been dismantled, revealing a bare room. The caravan had moved on and the caravanserai was empty.

Waiting for the lift, I tried once again to identify the pervading odour of the hotel. Cooking oil seemed to be there. Cooking oil and... aircraft fuel? Surely not.

Tenth floor, ninth floor, eighth floor... was that the one where Castro had been staying when his American girlfriend had returned from the States with a pistol, ready to kill him, and then relented? Must find out.

Lobby. Prostitutes arranged down the left-hand side. Ice cream on sale in the middle. And there, among the pot plants, was a familiar face - one of the interpreters who had helped during the World Cup weekend.

Together, we took a taxi - a Lada, naturally - to the only obvious sporting site, namely Sport City. If anything was happening in Cuban sport, this was where it was happening.

But not much appeared to be happening in Cuban sport at that precise moment. I spoke to a couple of teenaged boys who had arrived by bicycle for a swim. They liked swimming, and they had come to Sport City because it had a pool. Where they could swim.

So where were the boxers? At a training camp, apparently. What about Javier Sotomayor, the world high-jump champion? Out of town.

I found myself drifting towards a loudly contested basketball match being watched by a handful of student-types. A grizzled man in a tracksuit looked on - previously a sprint coach, he was now in charge of Cuban basketball.

As the US trade embargo cut more deeply into his country's economy, and professional classes took to the streets - to queue for bread - he was operating on minimal financial resources. The teams scrambling and shouting in front of us were dressed in a rag-bag of different outfits; even the ball looked a thing of shreds and patches.

A new basketball, the coach explained, cost $35. Perhaps, he added, raising an eyebrow towards me, the Independent might like to sponsor the Cuban Basketball Association for the price of one? The Independent agreed, and once the game had concluded, and the ancient coach of the losing team had decided, ultimately, against suicide, we returned to the main office block.

Money may have been scarce at the Cuban sports institute, but there was no fast way of putting it in there. Even though we were at the end of a working day, forms needed to be filled and papers signed.

Midway through the negotiations, as the Giraffe and the Pelly and me - sorry, the coach and the interpreter and I - stood in a corridor, we were greeted by a woman emerging from another office. Juantorena's office.

Asked - through my interpreter friend - when Juantorena would be back from his vacation, the woman looked puzzled. Senor Juantorena was not on vacation. He would be back in his office tomorrow morning.

An interview was arranged. (Thank you God. Thank you basketball.) It yielded the necessary information.

I have my own private name for Juantorena now. I think of him as the Gift Horse.