Monday, July 27, 2015

The Pan American Games come to Ontario

The Pan American Games are seen by some (athletes and bureaucrats) as a stepping stone to the really important event, the Olympics.  By others it is seen as bush league or a burden on tax payers.

My viewpoint is that it is an opportunity to showcase your talent.  That is true for both athletes, bureaucrats and taxpayers.  Those who love sports and those who love international pageantry should see it as a feast, maybe not as exciting as the Olympics, but a lot closer and competitive within its limitations.

The Olympics fascinated me as a young boy and although it sometimes seems too commercial it never fails to get my attention.  I lived the excitement through newspapers and television and lately the inter net, but only have a very slight personal connection.  The Pan Am Games intruded into my personal life and that of my neighbours and fellow Canadian citizens and taxpayers.  We started off unimpressed and a bit jaded, but now that they are over maybe we missed too much of a good thing.

As with almost everything else the sports world is increasingly globalized.  At the same time the grassroots has never lost its importance.  While us armchair quarterbacks pontificate on the merits or lack of them for athletes and sports events it all starts beneath our radar.

Toronto stymied at Olympic bids obtained the rights to the 2015 Pan American Games.  One smart thing was to spread the events around Ontario.  They got several municipalities invested in the idea and spread out potential traffic problems.  My home town, Hamilton was given a chance to hold both the soccer games and the indoor cycling and at another time they had a shot at track and field.  Not everyone on council or in the bureaucracy saw this as an opportunity and we ended up just getting the soccer, the second most popular sport.

Along the way I heard complaints about the stadium being behind schedule, from someone on site.  The Go Station was supposed to be ready to help expedite ticket buyers from out of town to the game, but every day I either drove or walked past it and could see little progress.  Lots of complaints about how unimportant it was or others about how poorly we were handling it.

For prior years there had been a big controversy over our Hamilton Ti-Cat football facilities, known as Ivor Wynne Stadium, named for one one of the founders of the British Empire Games.  It was recognized as no longer up to standards.  The owners wanted to move it to a location where they could charge for parking, but a lot of citizens myself included wanted it located near the harbour where it would be more central and accessible (for instance in walking distance of the proposed new GO station.)  With the Pan Am Games money was found to upgrade the stadium and it was decided to keep the same location in a residential neighbourhood with poor parking.  It was behind schedule and failed to open in time for the football schedule, but they did try it for a concert and later for a friendly women's soccer game prior to the Women's World Cup.

It became evident that a lot of the best athletes were not going to come.  It turns out that for many it is necessary to qualify for the Olympics through a different procedure, although some events were qualifying.  When the Olympics opened up for professional athletes someone somewhere seemed to decide that regional events like the Pan American Games would be more for development.  Just a few weeks before the Canadian women organized our best women (many playing professionally) and they gave a good account of themselves but for the Pan American Games almost all the players were under 22.  Different countries handled the rosters differently.

Finally the Games were set to begin.  The Open Ceremonies were first class with Cirque de Soleil organizers involved.  Lots of fireworks (around the CN Tower) and celebrities.  Steve Nash, one of my heroes lit the flame and Bobby Orr was introduced at one point.

I was able to buy tickets for a women's soccer game with my son visiting from New Zealand.  It was a double header with Ecuador vs Brazil first followed by Canada vs. Costa Rica.  In the first game underdog Ecuador scored first with what I recall as the best goal in the Pan Am, but easily wiped out by 5 goals from one Brazilian player.  Although the crowd was far from full they supported Canada, but unfortunately Costa Rica won 2-0 in what was a satisfying display for me.  Costa Rica had been one of my favourites in the men's World Cup as they upset much higher ranked teams.  We were able to walk about three blocks from home, pick up a bus for free (included in ticket price) and walk about two blocks to the game.   I hadn't been to the old Ivor Wynne Stadium in many years, but the new originally called Tim Horton's Field , but for the Pan Am relabelled CIBC Stadium was much improved and I was unable to detect any serious flaws.

The rest of the actual Pan-Am games for me was on tv and increasingly on the inter-net where you would get more live action.  Many highlights were enjoyed.  The women's basketball with Kia Nurse from Hamilton, an instrumental force in Canada winning the gold medal against favoured Americans.  Kia was chosen to be the flag bearer at the Closing ceremonies. The men's basketball was also exciting and I was impressed not only with Canada, but also, Brazil who won the gold medal, and also, Argentina, and little Dominican Republic.  Perhaps the top players might have made a difference, but competitive all the same.

I watched a little baseball, but missed the best part.  In the gold medal game the score was tied at the end of 9 innings and I started to watch extra innings.  An unusual (but sensible) rule was that in extra innings each team starts out with men on first and second and can tinker with the batting order.   The Americans scored two runs in their half and I decided I needed to get to bed, but taking advantage of an error Canada won.  Baseball had been eliminated from the Olympics, but seems likely to be reinstated for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Track got a lot of my attention with Canadians successful in the decathlon, high jump and sprints.  One of the special moments for me was when Damian Warner set a new Pan Am record and the higher Canadian record in the decathlon with the previous record holder, Michael Smith in the announcer booth.  Mike was more than gracious, praising Damian and suggesting he will break more records in the future.   To me the most exciting track events are the relays, especially the 4 x 400.  They were all enjoyable, but unfortunately De Grace missed his chance for a third gold medal when afterwards the Canadians were disqualified.

Equestrian sports got my attention.  The team event was a qualifier for the Olympics and with a little luck they came through in fine style.  Jessica Phoenix won a silver medal in individual eventing.  I remember her from some photo ops at the Royal Winter Fair where she was uncommonly gracious.

There was a wide range of events, some of which are not Olympic events such as bowling and water skiing, but I only saw snippets of them.  I found myself watching a fair amount of soccer and volleyball, but missed some of my normal preferences of swimming and gymnastics.

I didn't see the closing ceremonies as I opted to go to a fireworks/music display near where I live.   There was a little bit of controversy with the choice of for main entertainment.  Although popular people objected to an American, Kanye West getting the spotlight.  I remember for the Atlanta Olympics the organizers had to explain why Celine Dionne was given prime spot at their closings and they just said they wanted the best.  When I think of Pan America I think of Latin music with Brazilian amongst my favourite entertainment.  Nothing against Kanye, if the organizers thought he was the best and most appropriate one available, but my tastes are different.  A preliminary singer was Serena Ryder who had sung theme song which I liked more than enough to buy the iTune version and went on to buy the French and Spanish recordings.  One of the writers of the song was Jasmine Denham and she sang the French version.  This was the 400th anniversary of francophones in Ontario.

The city of Hamilton decided to have a free concert with a special fireworks display.  I got a little late and just saw the tail end of the Turbo Street Funk Band which seemed like a fun group.  Terra Lightfoot, who I had never heard before was given a chance to perform with the National Academy Orchestra under the direction of Boris Brott--turned out to be very enjoyable.  The Fireworks were done by Circus Orange.

Was the fuss worth it?  I would say it deserved more fuss and that many missed an opportunity.  Why do we like sports?  Perhaps some like skill, strength, speed, but more likely competitiveness.  There was plenty of skill and certainly competitiveness.  Maybe we didn't see the very best, but we did see some excellent and developing athletes.

To me such events are more than just sports as there is the international element.  As hockey fanatics have a tendency to appreciate the nations that are competitive in that sport.  Not too many hockey players in the Caribbean or Central and South America, but they do produce a lot of top notch soccer, basketball, baseball players and sprinters.

A major concern with the organizers was traffic.  Traffic congestion would leave a bad impression on visitors as well as taxpayers.  One solution was called a HOV lane which normally requires only one passenger to allow a car to use the fast lane.  For the Pan Am Games two passengers were required.  Taking our son to the airport we were able to use the HOV lane which greatly speeded up the process but coming back with only the two of us it was noticeably slower.  Still provincial authorities were pleased with the results and may adopt it as a long term solution.  The Go Station did open in time and combined with shuttle buses made it easy for out of town visitors to get to the games and back home or hotel quickly.
A lot of local Hamilton merchants not too happy about how the GO service worked as people found little near the stadium to interest them and speeded out of town without spending much money (outside the stadium of course).  If we ever get another chance (say for the Grey Cup) we should try to remedy this oversight so that more local businesses could benefit and visitors could have a more enjoyable experience.  I understand hotels did benefit from officials and soccer teams staying in Hamilton

For me I like to experience foreign cultures and felt compelled to visit a local restaurant which has become a favourite, Culantro Peruvian Cookery.  We took our son on his last night and the owner/chef came to thank us.

A lot of money has been spent and now that two weeks of enjoyment are over what is left?  A few Olympic calibre buildings, an Athlete's Village that will open for residents, perhaps new traffic system that will improve the environment.  Did you get a chance to appreciate a little bit about our neighbours to the south?  We will be working with them more in the future and hopefully enjoying new relationships and new arts.

In Hamilton we did get an improved stadium and perhaps we learned a few things that will be useful when other opportunities come our way.  Bringing a GO station a little sooner will in the long run have a positive effect on the whole line.   Did we elevate anyone's opinion of Hamilton or Ontario?  Remember we had the opportunity to reach out to not only Ontario and Canada, but all of the Caribbean, Central and South America.  We shouldn't forget American visitors many of whom would find it easy to re-visit.  How good did we do?

I hope one way or another I can get a taste of Parapan Games that start in another week or so.   Way back in 1976 when the Olympics were held in Montreal I was involved in writing a book on basketball and although I was not able to make it to Montreal the Paralympics were held in Etobicoke and I made a few trips to better understand wheelchair basketball.  What I most remember was Arnie Boldt winning a gold medal and setting a world's record in a light rain.  it was astonishing to me and my wife what a one legged man could do.  I also remember one of the dominant wheelchair basketball teams came from Israel where it was explained they take very good care of their war veterans who suffered in military action.  The other brief connection I had with the Olympics was with the Olympic basketball qualifying tournament in Hamilton where I saw many games using a press pass.

PHOTOS:  Women's soccer action between Canada and Costa Rica
Terra Lightfoot with the National Academy Orchestra
Michael Davidson, Juan Castillo, the owner/chef of Culantro Peruvian Cookery and Heather Davidson

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