In more than seven decades of existence, the Pan-American Games have had very curious moments that are often forgotten in the recaps that are usually made about the most important multi-sport event of the continent.
The chronicles, in general, focus on the exploits of athletes and the triumphs of the teams, but on many occasions they leave out the small stories that allow us to have a more comprehensive idea of the history of the Pan American Games.
GAME SITES IN CONFLICT, ALMOST A PAN AMERICAN WAR
The Central American and Caribbean Games emerged in 1926. However, after that date a quarter of a century passed before all the countries of the continent were able to compete in a multisport event. In 1940, the delegates of 16 nations that participated in the Pan-American Sports Congress approved the first edition of the Games, in 1942, in Buenos Aires; but the Second World War took place. The sports universe was frozen – in all of its forms- for an entire decade.
During the celebration of the 1948 London Olympic Games, which were known as the austerity games since the British capital had not yet been able to recover from the damage caused by Nazi bombings, the second version of the Pan-American Sports Congress was held. In this conclave, the Argentine capital was ratified as the site of the Games of 1951. The idea at that time -which has prevailed until now – was for the Pan American Games to take place every four years.
But the problems did not end there. In December 1973, the Executive Committee of the Pan-American Sports Organization (PASO-ODEPA) validated Sao Paulo’s proposal to host the Games once again, as done in 1963. However, at the end of 1974 an epidemic of meningitis hit the Brazilian city and another letdown took place.
In any case, this cycle has been in trouble on several occasions for political and economic reasons. Santiago de Chile competed to become the host city for the 1971 Games, but lost to Cali. The Chileans persevered and obtained the right to organize the 1975 event; however, the coup led by dictator Augusto Pinochet changed everything. The new government rejected the Games and the “substitute” city, San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, claimed that it had already served as host in 1979, therefore, it could not take on the organization of the event.
Right at that moment, an offer came from Mexico City. The president of that country, Luis Echevarría Álvarez, offered his support to Mario Vázquez Raña – who later became the head of PASO – and in a few months the Mexicans, who were fortunate to have the facilities from the 1968 Olympics, were able to organize the Games, so the four-year cycle remained intact.
Conflicts reappeared around the 1987 Games. Chile was awarded the hosting site, for the second time now, but dictator Pinochet’s government refused to offer financial support. Ecuador was not able to cover the costs of the event either and, at that moment, the candidacy of Havana gained strength. Nevertheless, Indianapolis was the chosen city and Cuba felt that it had been undermined, so it protested. The presence of the Cuban delegation in the 1987 Games was uncertain, but the United States Olympic Committee and PASO apologized for the way in which the process had been conducted and offered guarantees to support the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana. This resolved the diplomatic-sports quagmire and Cuba attended the 1987 Games.
After two very difficult decades, the Games have not been at risk again…and Chile will finally host the Pan American Games for the first time in 2023.
PAN AMERICAN MASCOTS
Mascots are an inseparable symbol of the main sports competitions. In the Pan American Games, they have been used since the 1979 San Juan meetup, and on the list of 14 animals selected, you will find, among others, a toad, a tocororo, a porcupine and even a sea lion. Organizers always try, with more or less success, to conceive their mascot as a combination of the traits of the country and innovative design elements.
The names of these mascots have been very peculiar, from Coqui the toad in San Juan, to Tocopán the torocoro in Havana, to Pachi the porcupine in Toronto.
THE PAN AMERICAN FLAME
The lighting of the Pan-American cauldron is one of the most anticipated moments of the opening ceremony of each event. The tradition started at the Buenos Aires Games where Argentines really wanted to innovate, because they brought fire from Greece and the final torch bearer was Greek runner Juan Sossidis.
Four years later, the Mexicans decided to turn to their roots, so the fire did not travel from Europe. Instead, it came from Cerro de las Estrellas (Star Hill), a place of rich history where the aborigines renewed that fire at the outset of a every new century, according to the Aztec Calendar.
Then, in 1963, the Brazilians opted to use a triggered fire technique in Brasilia, based on the methods used by the ancestors of the Carajás Indians. Five decades later, the flame of the 2015 Toronto Games was ignited at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun of Teotihuacán, in Mexico, in a ritual very similar to that used in pre-Hispanic times.
The organizers of Lima 2019 have planned to perform this same ritual, so the torch will be lit in Teotihuacán and from there it will be transferred, by plane, to one of the iconic sites of Peru: the citadel of Macchu Picchu. From there it will be carried across the main cities of the country.
WINTER PANAMERICANS, AN EXPERIENCE THAT MELTED AWAY
The Pan American Games also had a winter version. It took place in 1990 and Las Peñas ski and snowboard center in the Argentinean province of Mendoza, was responsible for hosting that event, in which only 97 athletes from eight countries participated in four modalities: descent, slalom, Super G and giant slalom.
That experience did fare well and its second edition, scheduled for Santiago de Chile in 1993, was canceled. Since then, nobody has dared to resume the plans for new meetups, not even in a context in which winter sports have now gained acceptance in the continent.
THE MOST UNUDUAL FACTS ABOUT THE PAN AMERICANS
Men’s soccer has been present in the 17 editions of the Pan-American Games, while, the female modality debuted in Winnipeg 1999. Of all the games played throughout these almost seven decades, the strangest of all certainly happened during the 1975 final. On October 25, at the Aztec stadium, Brazil and Mexico played in front of almost 100 thousand fans.
The locals, who had a very young Hugo Sánchez in the lineup, took the lead with a goal from Hector Tapia, but in the final minutes, Claudio Adao tied the game. They had to go to overtime and here is where the unprecedented happened: the lights of the Aztec stadium began to go out. When this happened, several fans invaded the turf and the referee decided to end the match. It was not possible to reprogram the game, so Mexicans and Brazilians shared the gold medal.
Another controversial moment in the Pan American Games occurred in the 800m final of the athletics competition at the Caracas Games, in 1983. The Venezuelan fans expected their runner, William Wuyke, to fulfill the predictions and win the gold medal, but the local idol came to close to Brazilian Alberto Guimaraes, collided and fell to the ground, so he was left out of the podium. He immediately appealed the results and, at first, the jury decided to disqualify Guimaraes and ordered a repeat of the race.
Then came the protests from the Brazilian side demanding a new verdict, from another jury.
The climate grew strange and discomforting because the members of the commission concluded that the clash had been unintentional, so Guimaraes kept the title, but he also won the title as the most hated man of the Games, so much so that during the rest of his stay in Caracas, he had to be protected, all the time, by three armed soldiers.