Philip Barker

The 2019 Pan American Games Flame lit at the ancient Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan in Mexico will arrive in Lima next week. With some 6,900 athletes involved, it will set the seal on a golden decade of major sport in South America which has included the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

It is almost seven decades since the first Pan American Games in 1951. Had it not been for the Second World War, they would have started much earlier. There was a sports meeting in Rio as early as 1922 but interest really grew after a meeting during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1937, a sports festival was part of the Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition.

As war clouds threatened Europe, sports officials proposed a Pan Am Sports Championships in 1942 to coincide with the 450th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, to be held in Buenos Aires. Objectives included "the promotion of public interest and amateur sport, to include the development of closer athletic relations between member countries".

They even planned an Athletes’ Village in the suburbs of Don Torcuato, which was to be bankrolled by the Hindu club at a cost of $112,000.

"We realise that war has changed things in this hemisphere, but these Games will serve to unite youth of the continent as they have never before been united," insisted Argentinian official Juan Carlos Palacios.

"The axis nations are continuing to hold contests among themselves. We too must stand firm and solid as a lesson to the dictators."

Sadly, organisers were forced to bow to the inevitable and the Games were put on ice. 

After the war, they tried again. Juan Domingo Perón had become Argentina’s President and threw his weight and enthusiasm behind them. His wife Eva, better known as Evita, was just as keen.

They opened in 1951 at a stadium named in honour of Perón and a Flame was brought from Greece by International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Ioannis Ketseas.

Although the United States dominated the sport, Argentina still had plenty to cheer. One or other of the Peróns were often present to offer congratulations, as in the case of 1948 Olympic champion Delfo Cabrera who repeated his marathon success on home soil. Argentina also won gold in football and polo.

In 1951, Peru were also celebrating the exploits of pistol shooter Edwin Vásquez Cam, their only Olympic champion to date. He also won in Buenos Aires.

On the track, Julia Sánchez became the first woman from Peru to win a Pan Am title with victory in the 100 metres.

A magazine shows the Peróns at the end of the 1951 Pan American Games ©Philip Barker
A magazine shows the Peróns at the end of the 1951 Pan American Games ©Philip Barker

The next host city was Mexico City. They had lost out to Melbourne in the race for the 1956 Olympics but were soon awarded the 1955 Pan Ams.

The build up was not trouble free but 100,000 attended the opening. Many feel they paved the way for the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

Chicago replaced Cleveland as the host city for the 1959 Games, held in the States for the first time.

They opened at Soldier Field which also staged athletics on a new track. The marathon was held on the outer drive of a public freeway with incoming traffic on the inner lanes. It did not bother gold medallist John Kelley.

There was no place at Chicago 1959 for light heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, who had lost in the United States trials to Amos Johnson. Ali more than made up for it at the 1960 Olympics and in his later career.

Tennis gold that year went to reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion Althea Gibson. She was succeeded both as Wimbledon and Pan Am champion by Brazil’s Maria Bueno, who won at the 1963 Games in São Paulo. The US had great success but still lost out in baseball to what American officials called "Cuba’s smart-playing team".

The 1967 host, Winnipeg, was "the Canadian city where Western hospitality begins". Jim Daly, an insurance company director, headed the Organising Committee and called for "TCI, short for total community involvement".

The Games coincided with Canada’s centenary. Only the weather let them down as umbrellas surrounded Prince Philip during the Opening Ceremony.

There were also gender verification tests for women, described by American pentathlete Pat Connolly as "a very embarrassing sex test". Canadian 800m runner Abby Hoffman later called it "just plain dumb".

The Stars and Stripes dominated. Lee Evans over 400m, Bill Toomey in the decathlon, 100m champion Wyomia Tyus and 800m champion Madeleine Manning were all distinguished Olympians.

So was 200m champion John Carlos. A year later he protested on the Olympic medal dais in support of Black Power. There had been thoughts of a similar gesture at the Pan Ams but it was decided that the impact would be greater at the the Olympics.

In the pool, Mark Spitz won individual and relay golds to serve notice of a phenomenal career.

Peru's Julia Sánchez, who was 100 metres champion at the inaugural Pan American Games in 1951 ©Philip Barker
Peru's Julia Sánchez, who was 100 metres champion at the inaugural Pan American Games in 1951 ©Philip Barker

In 1971, the Colombian city of Cali also saw a sprinking of star dust. Jamaica’s Don Quarrie in the sprints and American Steve Prefontaine, known as "Pre", who achieved his only major title at 5,000m. He died in a car crash before revealing his true promise.

Boxer Francisco "Morochito" Rodríguez, Venezuela’s first Olympic champion in 1968, cemented his reputation with a second Pan Am gold.

The 1975 Games had been scheduled for Santiago but a military coup in 1973 forced organisers to look elsewhere. They returned to Mexico where it was claimed 80 per cent of the facilities from 1968 were used.

Cuban sprinter Silvio Leonard was never an Olympic gold medallist but won three individual Pan Am golds and defeated Trinidad and Tobago’s Hasely Crawford, later 1976 100m Olympic champion. Ronnie Ray had the better of Alberto Juantorena over 400m but never made it to Montreal, where Juantorena won double Olympic gold. Another 1976 champion, Bruce Jenner, took the decathlon title.

Edith Noeding’s 100m hurdles victory was the first Peruvian gold since 1951.

In 1983, organisers were struggling to complete the installations right up to the last minute in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.

"It appeared impossible, it appeared that only a miracle would save us, but today, we have beaten the pessimists, there will be 15 unforgettable days," said Organising Committee President Carlos Lovera.

The parade of nations was preceded by beauty queens, led by Irene Sáez, Miss Universe from 1981. She later went into politics.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch himself raised the Olympic flag, which had rings on only one side. He lined up in the tribune of honour alongside President Luis Herrera Campins along with Mexico’s Mario Vázquez Raña, President of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO).

Caracas 1983 was significant for the introduction of strict doping controls. Some athletes and weightlifters left before the competition even began.

Samaranch later said: "We agree with the Organising Committee and more than that, we are pleased with them for the severity of controls."

There were around a dozen positive tests and the Olympic review called it a ‘’turning point’’ in the fight against drugs.

In men’s basketball, the USA clinched gold with victory over Brazil in a closely-contested match. The US’s number five weighed in with 14 points. A new star had been born – his name was Michael Jordan.

Blue skies greeted the Opening Ceremony of the 1991 Games held in Havana for the first time.

The 1951 Pan Am Games poster depicted on a magazine cover ©Philip Barker
The 1951 Pan Am Games poster depicted on a magazine cover ©Philip Barker

"We have a sacred commitment to the Pan Am Games and we will honour it. They have been given a high priority and will continue to enjoy it," said Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"This is an extraordinary day for sport" said organising chief Jose Ramon Fernandez.

High jumper Javier Sotomayor lit the Flame after ascending to the cauldron in a mechanical stairlift. It had been some achievement to find a way through the hordes of fellow competitors who rushed to photograph the moment.

He probably found it easier to clinch his third successive Pan Am gold medal in 1995 at Mar del Plata in Argentina, a feat emulated by heavyweight boxer Félix Savón.

The new Pan Am millennium began in the Dominican Republic. Although many objected to the cost, there were great celebrations when double 400m hurdles world champion Félix Sánchez struck gold, the prelude to two Olympic gold medals.

Carlos Nuzman led Rio’s successful bid for the 2007 Pan American Games. It used a renovated swimming pool named after 1930s star Maria Lenk and Estádio Olímpico João Havelange for athletics. Rio 2007 was used as an important counter when Rio also won the 2016 Olympics.

The last Pan Am Games were held four years ago in Toronto. "Our commitment, our pledge, our undertaking, our promise is to provide you with the best Pan Am Games ever,’’ Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty promised.

They began in spectacular fashion as the Flame arrived at the top of the CN Tower where 1996 relay gold medal winner Bruny Surin ran along the EdgeWalk before passing to Donovan Bailey, who then appeared to skydive to the top of the stadium.

He was brought inside suspended on a wire. As he landed, he passed the Flame to aspiring diver Faith Zacharias who placed it on a stand until the end of the ceremony.

The cauldron was ignited later by basketballer Steve Nash who had been a lighter at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

When the Games began, Trinidad and Tobago’s Keshorn Walcott won the javelin just as he had done at the Olympics of 2012 and high jumper Levern Spencer became Saint Lucia’s first Pan Am champion.

For Peru, Alexandra Grande took 61 kilograms karate gold and teenager Natalia Cuglievan declared herself "super happy" after winning water skiing gold in the tricks. 

"I had not expected anything," she said. "It has been a long time since we won gold. Peru have improved a lot and we will do even better in 2019."

Marathon runner Gladys Tejeda crossed the line first, but was later stripped of her gold for doping.

Next week in Lima, Peru will be the last of the 41 nations to enter at the opening but the pressure on them to perform in the 39 sports will be the greatest of all.