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Can the Pan Am Games live up to its ambition?

U of T Scarborough Principal Bruce Kidd, who participated in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo as an athlete, will speak about the legacy of the 2015 Pan Am & Parapan American Games. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Most of us think the Pan American Games are about sport and leveraging government capital for infrastructure renewal to benefit the host city.  But the original ambition was much broader: to stimulate cultural expression and performance, and serve as a vehicle for promoting intercultural awareness and civil conversation across the very different societies of the hemisphere.

The Pan Am Games are the world’s third largest international multi-sport event, after the summer Olympics and the Asian Games.  As we approach the 17th Games in Toronto in 84 days, a colloquium at the University of Toronto, funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, seeks to understand the event as a shared project of the Americas with speakers from Latin America, Canada, the U. S., England, Italy and Israel.

The Pan Am Games have never been unfamiliar with controversy.

Doping became a headline in the Olympic movement at the Pan Am Games in Caracas. With the Los Angeles Olympics coming the following year, the 1983 Games were the first to implement a new system of detecting banned substances, developed by German scientist Manfred Donike. It was a decision that changed the history of sport.  What the Pan American Sport Organization called “the biggest drug bust in international athletics” could have been even bigger. After launching surprise testing, dozens of athletes returned home before their events, others faked injuries to avoid in-competition testing and some purposely finished out of the medals presumably in attempts to avoid the tests. Canadian weightlifter Guy Creavette tested positive for steroid use; he was suspended for two years and lost his Gold medal.  Thirty other athletes tested positive, including 16 medalists.

Gender testing was introduced at the 5th Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, but only for some athletes.  The tests, administered at the 1967 Pan Am Games and the 1966 Commonwealth Games, required female competitors to submit to humiliating and invasive physical examinations, including what became known as “naked parades.” The following year the IOC introduced sex testing at the Olympic games in Mexico City. The tests were widely criticized by athletes, feminists and scientists until they were abolished in 1999.

This past December, President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced that after more than 50 tense years—years that coincide with the Pan American Games—the two countries will re-establish ties.  It’s too early to tell where thawing relations will lead, though the 2015 Games are one of the first fields on which the Americans and Cubans will play ball in this new relationship and it’s one that is very different from the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis, where the American-Cuban Partnership showered thousands of flyers on Cuban athletes with instructions on how to defect, or the 1991 Games in Havana, when the U. S. basketball team shuttled back and forth from Miami rather than stay in the Athletes’ Village—a decision even the players criticized.

While Pan Am Games and international sports policy is one theme, the colloquium will also address:

- To what extent have the Pan American Games contributed to city-building? What will the effect of the Toronto 2015 Games be for Toronto and Ontario, the city and region that attracts the largest population of newcomers to Canada?

- To what extent have Pan American sports organizations achieved good governance? How do we ensure transparency and accountability?

- Three of Canada’s ten largest trading partners are in the Americas, and our foreign direct investment reach in the region is equal to more than half of our investments in the developing world. Is the original purpose of the Pan Am Games is still relevant for us? Are there better ways to bring the Americas closer together?

- Can multi-sport events like the Pan Am Games and the Olympics continue to achieve their humanitarian goals or are these simply sports for sports sake?

- The political, economic and social landscape for major games is changing, so much so that cities, regions and countries around the world are hesitating about bidding for them. Edmonton recently postponed its bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and reports are a majority of Bostonians think the Olympic dream would be a nightmare. The IOC has even radically revised its bidding rules in an attempt to make its Games more attractive to bid countries. What are the lessons of the Pan Ams for future Games?

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