The 16th edition of the quadrennial Pan American Games came to a close on the evening of Sunday 30 October 2011 in the beautiful city of Guadalajara, Mexico, with a scintillating display of genuine Mexican culture, just as was witnessed at the official opening on 14 October.
The people of Guadalajara who facilitated and supported the more than 6000 athletes for the past few weeks turned out in their numbers to emphasise their appreciation for the performances delivered by the athletes and their overwhelming joy at having had the distinction of playing host to the most amazing sporting spectacle in the Americas.
Winning the Bid
There is an interesting background to Guadalajara’s hosting of the 16th edition of the Pan American Games.
When bids opened for the Pan American Games of 2003 there were two bids, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Guadalajara, Mexico. The challenge was on and the two cities sought to win the votes of the other members of the Pan American Sports Organisation (PASO) proprietors of the Games.
To some members it seemed that there was some bias within the organisation for the city of Guadalajara. However, led by the very experienced and passionate Jose Joaquin Puello, who was at the time also the President of the National Olympic Committee of the Dominican Republic as well as of the Central American and Caribbean Sports Organisation (CACSO), Santo Domingo marketed themselves as the Caribbean Bid.
The Caribbean passion bought into the Santo Domingo bid and so too did several of the National Olympic Committees of the Spanish-speaking members of PASO. This hurt the Guadalajara bid and when the time came for the vote, Santo Domingo defeated the Mexicans.
Ordinarily, no one would have lost any sleep on the outcome of the vote. However, the members of PASO in attendance at the deciding Assembly of PASO were forced into the realisation that certain prejudices were irked by the vote and so the Assembly came to an end that remains an instructive part of the legacy of PASO. The leadership simply left the host country of the Assembly, leaving everyone wondering what had happened to cause such a reaction. In short order members of PASO in attendance found it most disturbing that they could not find the leadership of the organisation and had to leave the host country of the Assembly, for the most part, without appropriate recompense. Many thought that this was evidence of the bias suggested earlier.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, defeated San Antonio, Texas. USA, in the bid to host the Pan American Games of 2007. Rio obviously had its sights set on its bid to host the Olympic Games of 2016, an achievement that it eventually realised.
Interestingly, without precedent and with little more than the forceful leadership of Mario Vazquez Rana, PASO demanded $11m USD from the countries bidding to host the Pan American Games of 2007, for the marketing rights. While Rio accepted and committed to paying the $11m fee, San Antonio insisted that this was not in its original plans and agreed to a specified sum and a commitment that should the Games realise profits the Organising Committee was prepared to discuss additional payments to PASO. Clearly this was not satisfactory to the leadership of PASO and may well have impacted the outcome of the vote.
For the Pan American Games of 2011 however Guadalajara was the lone bid. No one seemed anxious to challenge the Mexicans this time around and so the Games were duly awarded to the city. So it is that while Guadalajara lost the right to host the Pan American Games of 2003 it had successfully rebounded as the lone bid to host the Games of 2011.
Organising the Games
There was no significant difference between the Guadalajara bid for the Pan Am Games of 2003 and what was on offer for 2011. The bid won the Organising Committee – COPAG – immediately got to work, at least that was the impression everyone got at first. Reports to successive General Assemblies of the PASO sounded relatively good.
As the Games drew closer however there emerged evidence of the challenges being faced. It was evident that the original site for the Games Village to house the athletes and officials was inappropriate. The leadership of PASO insisted that a new site must be found and work commence. Some valuable time was expended haggling over this issue creating critical delays in getting started on what was always a demanding project central to the successful hosting of the Games.
The second area of concern was the tardiness in arriving at a decision in respect of the location of the new athletics stadium. Here again differences of opinion may well have been the cause for delays in the commencement of work on the facility.
At a General Assembly convened in Guadalajara in 2009 the aforementioned issues were highlighted especially since there was little to show to the delegates in respect of progress on these two major projects.
The PASO General Assembly of 2010, which should have been held in Guadalajara, was instead convened in the Mexican city of Merida.
An Extraordinary General Assembly of PASO was convened in the city of Acapulco, Mexico, October 2010. At this Assembly COPAG delivered a very expansive report on the progress of the preparatory work for the Games. The delegates discussed the Pan American Games Village following the COPAG presentation. Even though COPAG sought to assure the Assembly that all seemed to be on course for completion in advance of the opening of the Games there remained lingering doubts. There were still issues relating to the following:
- The Athletics Stadium, very far from completion
- The Games Village – also very far from completion
- The removal of some pillars at the Velodrome deemed essential for the visibility of the event at the finish line
The report of the COPAG was treated harshly by the delegates but more importantly, by the president of PASO, Mario Vazquez Rana, himself a Mexican, who seemed particularly disturbed by the potential for embarrassment to his country. Mr Rana was his usual self, at one point calling on the Organising Committee to avoid telling lies to the Assembly in respect of some of the facilities. He insisted that the Athletics Stadium and the Cycling Velodrome would be simple and not the best in the world as was being suggested in the COPAG report. This was a clear indication of his own disappointment with the progress or lack thereof in respect of some critical areas of the preparatory exercise for what he may well have perceived as his Games.
Rana insisted that he would ensure that the outstanding issues were dealt with and offered more critical monitoring and evaluation of the work to be undertaken in the time left before the Games. Perhaps this was the primary reason for not having the PASO Assembly of 2010 in Guadalajara. He may not have wanted the COPAG and all of Mexico, including himself, from being embarrassed by the reality.
While both the Games Village and the athletics stadium were completed in time for the Pan American Games it was clear that they barely did so and several challenges remained even after the spectacular opening of the 16th edition of the Pan American Games.
Delivering the Games
The 16th edition of the Pan American Games would be recorded as one of the best ever. This is an accolade that impacts the future of the event in the hearts and minds of the peoples of the region and determines the standard for the next host and all those interested in hosting future editions.
PASO suffered from the virtual absence of a Standing Technical Committee that is appropriately constituted. With the greatest of respect, Mike Fennell who heads this Committee, is hamstrung by the PASO leadership in respect of the number of visits to the COPAG in the years leading up to the event. This was clearly reflected in the hiccups at the start of the Games.
The Opening Ceremony was indeed spectacular and charmed everyone, including international audiences.
The athletes performed to their best in every sport leaving spectators totally excited and overwhelmed.
The volunteers were very good and most accommodating. In respect of the non-Spanish speaking visitors the COPAG had involved students of international relations at their various educational institutions and this proved particularly successful in facilitating communications during the Games.
The facilities remained a major challenge though not in all cases.
It was on the morning of the final day of the PASO Assembly that the announcement was made that the IAAF certificate for the track for athletics was finally received. This was two days prior to the start of the Games. Interestingly the announcement left many astounded since it was well known that there was still much outstanding work at the stadium and it is not the norm for a certificate to be approved in such a situation. This may well merit further investigation since several countries have had the IAAF breathing down their necks in respect of satisfying all requirements prior to the certificate being delivered.
Indeed the IAAF Permit for the athletics competition came almost the day before the start of the athletics at the Games.
The swimming competition suffered from the timing equipment that proved less than reliable. There were occasions when events had to be delayed because of problems with the timing equipment that had to be resolved. In some instances the delays came between rounds and may well have negatively impacted the performance of the athletes involved.
The Test Event for athletics proved not to be much of a test given that all systems were not in place and the athletes complained bitterly about the fact that while doing their preparations they had to contend with the smell of chemicals being used on the very warm-up facility in an attempt to complete it for the start of Games competition a few days later. The athletes felt that their own well being was being overlooked by the organisers who had their eyes clearly fxed on a different agenda.
Throughout the athletics competition the athletes were not provided with the shelter of tents and an adequate number of seats. They had to compete for space under trees in the warm-up area and sit or lie on the grassed areas. Despite several complaints these issues were not adequately addressed.
At the Games Village the teams complained about the inadequacy of the cleaners and the original contracted party had to be changed.
There were some who felt that budgetary constraints might well have forced COPAG into accepting the lowest bids for a number of things essential to the Games that eventually proved embarrassing.
In the end the Games were touted a great success. It is often forgotten that teams often play a great role in the success of any such event. The athletes of every team chose to ignore the negatives and rose to face the challenges head-on in every instance, staying focused on their reasons for being there and gave of their best in each event. It is this attitude on the part of teams to the Games that led to the success now being touted.
The results reflect the differences in approach of the respective teams. The USA brought what has been the largest contingent ever to leave their shores for a multi-sport Games – 627 athletes – but they were unable to get their very best. This was also the case of a well under par Jamaica. In the case of Brazil, they did bring their best. They had their world record holder and champion swimmer who devastated all opposition. Several other Latin American countries brought their best, something that we in the Caribbean do not seem capable of doing. Trinidad and Tobago could not get its best athletes but they did get their world ranked cyclist who delivered by establishing a new Pan American record in the 200m sprint but was unfortunate enough to only place third in the finals of the Match Sprint.
Grenada’s embarrassment was evident in the absence of their newly ranked 400m runners one of whom won gold while the other placed fifth at the recent World Championships in Athletics.
Surely, now that the Games are ended, we can look back and claim its success but this was possible only because in each instance everyone opted to confront the challenges and make the best of what was on offer.