What the Pan Am Games are all about

Canada’s Pan Am Games team chief Curt Harnett cheers during a women’s water polo match between Canada and Brazil …

To listen to the carping class, it would be more honest if the Pan Am Games schedule included the100-metre traffic crawl, the executive relaysecurity fence steeplechase, and the $2.5-billion snatch.

All of those concerns are valid. Of course, that fine whine is decanted before every major multi-sport competition. Then the games begin and everyone becomes an expert on gymnastics judging. Plus a self-proclaimed world-class city such as Toronto, if indeed it is world class, should be able “to handle a fairly minor disruption for a few weeks without losing their marbles.” London did it for the 2012 Olympics; New York City’s done it for the Super Bowl.  

The Pan Ams has a certain niche in the sportgeist. It isn’t the Olympics. It is limited to the 41 countries that comprise North and South America. In several disciplines, competition is not as high calibre as it would be at a world championship. For instance, the swimming worlds are in the first week of August so many countries rest their best, although Canada is sending an A-team to the Pan Am Pool in Scarborough. Track and field athletes also stand to get a boost from Own The Podium if they fare well at the worlds, which are also held  one year out from the Olympics. Several South American countries deploy a B or C team in soccer.

However, with the opening ceremony two days away, it must be said that the Pan Am Games, which were also held in Canada in 1967 and ’99 (thank you, Winnipeg) has a lot of appeal. And not just in the way of a guitarist who plays with his non-dominant left hand since that would be selling out. Briefly:

Star power! It is an event where Canada tends to do very well, standing third on the all-time medal table behind the U.S. and Cuba. It’s an opportunity to see many of our summer Olympians perform on home turf at regular sports-watching times in the evening, so it’s good practise for developing good viewing habits for next August in Rio, which is two time zones ahead of central Canada. 

Household names abound for the Maple Leaf. Ryan Cochrane, who’s in the conversation as the best 1,500-metre swimmer in the world, is competing. So are emerging track stars such as Andre De Grasse, Derek Drouin and Damian Warner and pole vaulter Shawnacy Barber. 

Being in front of Canadian eyes certainly could help raise the profile of world-class performers in individual athletes. And hey, maybe the media would pay more attention if the best middle-distance runners had a race from Phil Kessel’s condominium to the hot dog stand and Front and John streets and back.

Olympian stakes! No fewer than 15 events are direct qualifiers for the Rio Olympics, including field hockey, triathlon and men’s water polo. That’s kind of a big deal.

Canada’s women’s rugby sevens team has already qualified. They should still be followed just to see how Magali Harvey, one of the world’s best in rugby union, adapts to the breakneck smaller-side game.

Rivalries! Central and South American countries really get into this, for the most part. It’s a chance, athletically, for Canada to interact with the different part of the world, so there is that. Sports is about the people who do them and why they do them.

More sports! The stuck-up Summer Olympics has 28 sports, and infamously dropped baseball and softball and even recently made wrestling justify its place on the roster.

The Pan Ams, refreshingly, has more of a just-folks inclusiveness. Women’s baseball, with Canada led by veteran Kate Psota, is making its debut; given the way Canadian women in team sports have broken barriers in hockey, soccer, rugby and basketball (the Edmonton Varsity Grads, Google them), it’s only just to get on their bandwagon. Distinctly Canadian pastimes such as water-skiing and wakeboarding are also on the roster.

It’s a little more appealing than the Commonwealth Games. That multi-sport event games still includes lawn bowling, because England still has to be indulged for some reason. 

Purer basketball! Hoops played under FIBA rules might seem alien to North American eyes, with its enigmatic officiating standards. However, with shorter quarters than the NBA (10 instead of 12) and a shorter shot clock than the NCAA (24 seconds instead of 35), it’s a much more continuous game. 

Countries that might be minnows at the worlds and Olympics take the Pan Ams hoops veryseriously, not unlike a continental championship soccer. So there is a certain appeal to seeing Canada, with not-so-long-ago NBA No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett trying to revitalize his career, take on South American teams. Team USA is sending a men’s team devoid of NBAers, which means the tourney will be much more competitive than the usual coronation that unfolds at an Olympics.

The Canadian women’s team is fifth in the world, and much more endearing than their overexposed and overrated soccer counterparts. Coach Lisa Thomaidis’ team is a unique amalgam of 30-somethings such as gritty guard Shona Thorburn and forward Kim Gaucher who came of age “when there wasn’t money and there wasn’t interest” in the program and emerging stars such as Kia Nurse.

Legacies! Canada’s athletic infrastructure, on the summer side, is getting a sprucing up. This country is famously stingy for investing in sport. Sprinters, for instance, will no longer have to worry about crashing into a wall while practising. There will be venues for high-performance athletes, female and male, who don’t work in the high-dollar sports (read: hockey, and in one city in this country, baseball and basketball too).

Granted, as a University of Toronto professor pointed out, a lot of the civic projects attached to the Pan Ams could have been done without a mega-event.

Culture! One of the Pan Ams’ founding principles is that it must contain an arts and entertainment component. The Olympics had this element once in a while, before it decided to be all about the money and geopolitics. The Pan Ams, though, are a friendly games and that extends to offering free concerts and such.

Rather than dwell on what the Pan Ams are not, there’s a lot to embrace. Granted, that is being said with full awareness a commuter could, and probably did, read those last 1,000 words on her/his smartphone without moving an inch during morning traffic. So please don’t bother poiningt that out. 



Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger