21st CAC Games – amazing challenges

Hosting multisport Games is never an easy task and those who have had the privilege of participating in such events may not necessarily have a true appreciation of the many challenges that confront the organisers. In this Column we attempt to reflect on the challenges of the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games currently in progress in the western city of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. We should be mindful that the CAC Games are the oldest multisport Games after the Olympic Games, having had the first edition as early as 1926.
The CAC Games is the property of the Central Americana nd Caribbean Sports Organisation (CACSO).
The Bid
In 2004 the city of Mayaguez, led by its mayor, submitted a bid to host the 21st edition of the CAC Games in 2010. In the presentation it was clear that the mayor saw the hosting of the Games as an opportunity to open up the western part of the country through sport. It was an opportunity to provide the area with sporting infrastructure and bring attention to the developments that have been taking place over the years.
Mayaguez is home to what many consider the best campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
Guatemala City, Guatemala, also submitted a bid for the same event but lost out in the voting.
Winning the bid marked the beginning of the challenges for Mayaguez.
An Organising Committee was quickly established following the success of the bid and work began on the development of a tremendous plan for the Games that included the construction of a number of new facilities and significantly upgrading several others, recruitment of volunteers as well as appropriately qualified staff and the satisfaction of the requirements of the various International Federations (IF).
Many sports
The Mayaguez venture was intended to expose all of the western part of the country so sport competitions and training venues were spread a cross the area. Sub villages were prepared in Boqueron and Anasco. Events were held in a number of towns. But these were not enough given the number of sports on the programme. Equestrian was assigned to Bayamon, more than two hours away, while some others were placed in Salinas and Ponce. Additional sub villages had to be established in Salinas and Bayamon.
From the very beginning Mayaguez realised that it was not possible to host all of the sports on the CAC Programme. Some sports are not practised in the region and the construction of facilities for them would certainly not have been beneficial.
Guadalajara, host to the Pan American Games 2011, offered to host those sports that Mayaguez could not organise and use the exercise as a test of its own readiness for the Pan American Games one full year in advance.
Unfortunately, after much planning had been completed Guadalajara withdrew its offer and the organisers of the 2010 event were left holding the bag. Caught up in a mini crisis in respect of several sports, CACSO circulated an appeal for hosts. In response Bogota, Colombia, Guatemala City, Guatemala and Georgetown, Guyana submitted bids. Thus while the Games were awarded to Mayaguez, the number of sports on the programme created a situation where there were three sub venues outside of Puerto Rico, a feature that generated increased costs to participating countries and additional challenges for the Organising Committee (COMAZ). The decision also impacted the overall capacity of the COMAZ to manage all of the sub venues while based in Mayaguez.
Football was withdrawn by CONCACAF citing inadequacy of the facilities viz-a-viz its international requirements. Given the growing popularity of this sport in Puerto Rico, the loss would have left the organisers less than enthused.
In some other sports the number of participating countries failed to meet the CACSO requirements, which stipulate a minimum of five for the event to be considered part of the Games. With Cuba having made an early decision not to participate in the Games the CACSO reduced the quota to four countries and still some failed to meet it.
Financial challenges
At the time of submitting and winning the bid no one in CACSO or in Mayaguez would have predicted the international financial crisis that manifested itself in 2008 and the impact that this would have on the preparation for the CAC Games 2010.
By the time the crisis hit Puerto Rico was in the throes of preparing for State elections, even as the COMAZ found itself with grave headaches in respect of revised estimates to cover the cost of the Games.
The new government took control in January 2009 just ahead of the CACSO General Assembly in Vera Cruz, Mexico, host city of the 22nd edition of the CAC Games in 2014. At the Assembly the Secretary for Sport in the new government shockingly informed the gathering that there was no money to facilitate the Games of 2010. No one understood the intention since when asked whether the announcement meant the cancellation of the Games in Mayaguez the response was in the negative. Instead it was learnt that the previous government had already allocated the monies for the infrastructure however the monies for operational expenses posed a major challenge. The problem was that the new government found it necessary to significantly reduce the number of persons employed in the public service by 100,000. This sent ripples across the country and immediately rendered the regime unpopular. Given that this was but one of a series of measures proposed to facilitate the economic reconstruction of the country in the face of pre-existing challenges made worse by the international financial crisis, the new administration appeared to have had strong reservations about maintaining the commitment to hosting the Games in Mayaguez.
CACSO immediately appointed a Special Commission to evaluate the situation and make recommendations in respect of the Games. The government agreed with the Commission on a variety of measures aimed at generating the funds to cover these expenses.
In an effort to minimise expenses the COMAZ proposed that delegations brought in their respective teams no sooner than two days prior to the start of their competition and depart one day following its conclusion. This would ensure that numbers at the various sub villages would be kept at manageable levels.
Cash flow problems may well have dented the pace at which the operational aspects of the preparatory exercise moved forward, especially in the area of the employment of professional staff, critical to the success of the event.
Cuba’s decision not to be part of the 21st CAC Games may well have negatively impacted the overall interest in the event around the Americas. However, the demands made by that country were, for the most part, well outside the control of the COMAZ and even the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee. The leading request was that Cuba be struck off the list of countries identified by the USA as sponsoring terrorism. This was certainly not a sporting issue and could not be handled by the CACSO, COMAZ or the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee.
In the final weeks leading up to the Games the government decided that entry would be free. While this facilitated attendance at the various sporting events it put a nail in the coffin of COMAZ. The latter may well have been ahead in its plans for garnering some much needed resources from gate receipts. Inadvertently the decision also negatively impacted the capacity of visitors accompanying delegations from their respective countries to the Games to access seating at the different competitions consistent with their original plans.
In spite of the withdrawal of Cuba and the absence of Football from Mayaguez, the numbers from the participating countries were excellent. This is perhaps a reflection of the developmental nature of the quadrennial event. Many countries have opted to take large delegations to Mayaguez because Puerto Rico is close and transportation relatively cheap by comparison with Cartagena, Colombia, host of the 20th edition of the Games.
Several of the small Caribbean NOCs were among those taking advantage of the opportunities provided.
Unfortunately for the COMAZ there were some delegations that took charters to the Games and therefore brought along all of their athletes at the very start of the Games thereby putting tremendous pressure on the organisers to find accommodation for several delegations that adhered to the original requirements.
As if the COMAZ did not have enough problems the day of the opening ceremony saw a most unusual and unexpected weather phenomenon visited upon Mayaguez that was something of a cross between a waterspout and a tornado that lasted for just over one hour. The result was the destruction of one of the towers erected for the ceremony. The structure fell on a car causing injury to its occupants and causing the postponement of the ceremony by one day.
The authorities’ response to the incident was met with overwhelming support from the people of Mayaguez who turned out in the thousands for what was indeed a grand opening.
During the ceremony, however, some members of the Puerto Rican delegation seized the opportunity to come forward on the track with a banner that carried a statement against the Governor of the State. The protestors were quickly turned back.
The Puerto Rican Olympic Committee acted swiftly by imposing an immediate sanction on those involved.
It has been said that rain does not stop the annual carnival celebrations. In the case of the 21st CAC Games the many challenges failed to stop the Games from occurring. While we are at the halfway stage in the event it is clear that it has already established several records even as it has endured many hiccups.
When the history of this year’s CAC Games is written it will surely reflect the resilience of the people of Puerto Rico and more particularly the unflinching commitment of the people of Mayaguez to ensure that sport serves the ultimate goal of uniting a community, a nation and indeed our region.