Philip Barker

Seventy years ago, the Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, the first of three major regional multi sport events launched in 1951, were about to begin.

As preparations were finalised, a storm swept through the host city, damaging decorations and banners. Workmen rushed to make repairs before the 2,513 visiting athletes arrived.

"Practically the complete Olympic programme was on the schedule, plus baseball and polo," noted the popular monthly magazine World Sports.

"The Olympic model was slavishly copied as far as ceremony and events were concerned."

This included the lighting of a Flame brought from Greece. Some newspapers described this as an "Olympic" Flame. An oath was taken and the Olympic Flag was raised.

"It is not surprising that the Organising Committee sought to exalt the new event by imbuing it with the Olympic aura and thus associating it with Greece," said eminent Argentinian Olympic historian Professor Cesar Torres, who has made a detailed study of the 1951 Flame.

The presence of Olympic symbols in Buenos Aires prompted an inquisition by some International Olympic Committee (IOC) members.

Buenos Aires held the first Pan American Games in 1951 ©Mundo Deportivo
Buenos Aires held the first Pan American Games in 1951 ©Mundo Deportivo

The idea of spreading Olympism by regional Games had been a longstanding dream in the Americas.

In 1922, "Jogos Regionais da América do Sul" were staged in Rio de Janeiro to commemorate 100 years of Brazilian independence.

Sporting events were also held as part of the 1937 "Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition" in Dallas.

In the late 1930s, war in China had forced Tokyo to surrender Olympic hosting rights for 1940. They were reallocated to Helsinki, but further conflicts in Europe brought inevitable cancellation.

In October 1939, the New York Times reported Argentinian plans for a Continental Championship.

Encouraged by future IOC President Avery Brundage, who led a new sporting organisation on the continent, "Pan American Sporting Games" were arranged for Buenos Aires in 1942 but war intervened once more.

When the Olympics finally resumed six years later in London, officials took steps towards establishing Asian, Mediterranean Games and Pan American Games.

Buenos Aires was elected host city for the 1951 Pan American Games.

Argentina had a new President, Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, a man determined to show his regime in a positive light.

A former ski instructor, he was pictured on the slopes in a promotional magazine. An article entitled Peron a real Sportsman was printed in English.

"We can say with pride General Peron is our leading sportsman. A great 'encourager' (sic) of sport in this new Argentina which is being formed under his supervision," the article said. 

It listed his skills in basketball, fencing, swimming, riding and skiing and extolled his "contagious enthusiasm and natural ability and his belief above that one should play cleanly, success not depending on triumph but the way the Game was played".

Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, right, was President of Argentina during the Games ©Mundo Deportivo
Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, right, was President of Argentina during the Games ©Mundo Deportivo

Peron was named Honorary President of the Games. His wife Eva, widely known as "Evita", was given a similar title.

The Argentinians had been enthusiastic about the Flame ever since the first Torch Relay at the 1936 Olympics.

Before the abortive 1942 Games, Argentinian official Jose Gallo Cesana had described a flame relay. "Carried in an airplane from Greece to the United States, it should be perfectly possible and of great influence for the success of the Games to carry the Torch along the Pan American way from North to South," he said.

An Argentinian national sports festival held in 1949 featured a burning cauldron, ignited by Olympic marathon champion Delfo Cabrera.

The Argentinians contacted the Hellenic Olympic Committee. Jean (Ioannis) Ketseas, IOC member in Greece, agreed to help them. In 1934, he had been central to discussions on the Berlin Olympic Torch Relay. In 1951, he led a small group through the rocks on the ancient site at the Acropolis to light a flame.

Ketseas personally escorted the lamp to Argentina, accompanied by basketball player Aristidis Roubanis and athlete Ioannis Sossidis.

When they landed, they were welcomed by members of Argentina’s Greek community in traditional dress.

The Argentinian sports magazine Mundo Deportivo described "the classic and immortal symbol, the sacred flame. Its arrival in our capital is an emotional and symbolic act".

Male athletes were put up in the national military college, where decorations included the emblem of the Pan American Sports Committee featuring a burning torch. Had one burned in the Village, it might have discouraged the nightly visits by mosquitoes.

Much of the Olympic tradition was replicated during the 1951 Pan American Games, but this did not go down well at the IOC ©Mundo Deportivo
Much of the Olympic tradition was replicated during the 1951 Pan American Games, but this did not go down well at the IOC ©Mundo Deportivo

Women were housed separately in buildings provided by Eva Peron’s charitable foundation. US athletics official Evelyne Hall spoke of rooms "furnished in exquisite taste, beautiful oil paintings and thick oriental rugs, with pictures of the President and his wife in every room".

The Buenos Aires Herald reported the Opening Ceremony at the new Estadio Presidente Peron in Avellaneda.

It was staged "with all its anticipated brilliance," the report said. "A spectacular event assisted by perfect weather and arrangements and timing which could not have been bettered."

Organising Committee president Rodolfo Valenzuela spoke of an "Olympic Flame that gets to us from the classic entrail of Greece, the youth of the Americas see how their life dreams become reality".

Greek representatives then presented a "modest garland of olives" to Evita. "In the name of the sporting youth of Greece. To you Senora, the greatest supporter of sport in her country," they said.

For his part, President Peron invoked "the immortal Greece of 3,000 years ago. A joust of knights will now begin. May each one know how to win and lose with honour."

The Olympic Flag was raised by basketball player Oscar Furlong. Long jumper Enrique Kistenmacher and fencer Elsa Irigoyen spoke an oath of fair play.

The "Greek" Flame was then ignited in a cauldron.

The use of a Flame irked the IOC, which later banned their use at regional Games ©Mundo Deportivo
The use of a Flame irked the IOC, which later banned their use at regional Games ©Mundo Deportivo

The sport certainly had Olympic echoes. Cabrera repeated his 1948 marathon victory. America’s Mal Whitfield, 800m champion in London, won three golds and pole vaulter Bob Richards also reprised his 1948 success.

Brazil’s triple jump champion Adhemar de Silva won the first of three Pan American Games golds. It was the prelude to double Olympic success. American diver Pat McCormick won the platform competition and went on to gold at the next two Olympics, in her case a double.

The Games were described in the official Olympic Review as "having scored a great success", but by the time the Flame died, IOC chancellor Otto Mayer had already rung alarm bells.

Professor Torres noted this "reveals the IOC’s preoccupation with protecting the Olympic Flame ritual".

Mayer had written to IOC President Sigfrid Edstrom, who had sent a goodwill message to Buenos Aires. Edstrom’s initial response was that there was "no harm" in the flame taken by Ketseas.

There was already concern over protecting Olympic symbols. The first issue of the Olympic Review for 1951 included an article on the "Abuse of the Olympic symbols". This listed infringements in six nations, including France and the United States, but conceded: "In the majority of cases our intervention has been settled amicably and in a most successful manner."

Two months after Buenos Aires, the IOC Session gathered in Vienna and Brundage made his report on the Pan American Games.

He also lamented that it had not proved possible to stage a full IOC Session in Buenos Aires, "because they would not be able to see with their own eyes how amateur sport in Latin America has developed in the last generation".

Belgian Rodolphe Seeldrayers had not been in Argentina. He was "astonished to learn that an Olympic Flame had been transported from Greece to Buenos Aires, and that the Olympic Oath had been spoken in the stadium".

Armand Massard of France was equally concerned about the raising of the Olympic Flag.

The minutes betray the unhappiness of Ketseas, who "refuted the accusations made against him".

He reiterated that the Flame had been lit at the Acropolis and was "even more ancient" than the Olympic Flame.

He also asked: "Since authorisation had been given for the Olympic Flag to fly at regional games under the patronage of the IOC, why not authorise the transport of the Olympic Flame to these Games?"

The IOC later reneged on its Flame ban following a proposal from President Avery Brundage ©Getty Images
The IOC later reneged on its Flame ban following a proposal from President Avery Brundage ©Getty Images

A Flame had also burned in 1951 at the Asian Games in Delhi.

The IOC established a commission on regulations for regional Games. It presented its proposals at the 1952 session in Helsinki before the Olympics. Again there were lengthy discussions before Seeldrayers "asked for the addition of a clause forbidding the use of any type of Flame".

The IOC members eventually agreed. An official IOC booklet set out the new "Rules for Regional Games". Clause ten of twelve forbad the use of any flame or torch relay.

"The ceremonies in connection with the Games may be similar to, but must not be identical with those of the Olympic Games," the booklet said.

It was not the end of the matter. The IOC changed their mind and the session agenda for Athens 1954 included "reconsideration of the rule 10 for regional Games to withdraw prohibition against the use of a Torch Relay or Flame".

It was now to be allowed, provided it was not styled as "Olympic". The proposal came from IOC President Brundage himself. When the next edition of the Olympic Charter appeared, rules for regional Games still appeared but no longer included the prohibition of a Flame.

Within a year, a cauldron burned in Mexico City for the 1955 Pan American Games and in 1958, for the Asian Games in the city of Tokyo. It has been that way ever since.