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'99 Pan Am Games

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  • Sunday, December 5, 1999

    Best Pan Am Games ever

    By PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

     By the time the summer of '99 rolled around, Manitobans were getting tired. It seemed there'd been a constant call for volunteers, not only for the three previous events but also for dozens of test events leading to the Big Daddy of them all.

     The 1999 Pan American Games were a massive undertaking, the largest multi-sport event ever held in Canada, and the third-largest in North America.

     Five thousand athletes from 42 countries, participating in 41 sports over a 17-day period -- an event requiring 20,000 volunteers.

     With cottage country beckoning, Manitobans instead found their second wind -- or should that be their third, or even fourth? -- rolled up their sleeves and prepared to host the biggest party this area had ever seen.

     The first indication something special was about to happen came at the box office.

     Just over a month before The Games began, ticket revenue was sluggish, at $6 million. Over the next five weeks, sales averaged $1 million per week, for a final tally of $11 million.

     If there was any doubt left, it was washed away at an emotional opening ceremonies in gorgeous conditions at a refurbished Winnipeg Stadium.

     From that point on, someone locked the weather dial on P, for Perfect, and the athletes took over.

     Team Canada responded to the open-armed welcome by turning in its strongest Pan Ams ever. But this was much more than a sporting event -- this was a cultural happening unlike anything the province had ever seen.

     Crowds exceeding 50,000 gathered under clear skies at The Forks every night to enjoy musical themes from Latin-American to made-in-Manitoba. It seemed the entire population was out for 18 nights on the town.

     Capturing it all, and sending the pictures around the hemisphere, were The CBC and TSN, themselves part of a groundbreaking partnership that saw the rival broadcasters share resources and air time.

     No major international event would be complete without a little controversy, and The Games served up a sizzling combination of drugs and defections.

     For every athlete who walked his way to freedom there seemed to be one who disgraced their country by getting caught cheating.

     Through it all, the sun shone and the records fell, in what organizers were quick to label the best Pan Am Games ever.

     By the time the flame was extinguished at the closing ceremonies, close to 20,000 volunteers had contributed 2.5 million hours.

     The legacy included a $6 million profit, millions of dollars worth of new and renovated facilities, and an immeasurable pride in a job well done -- four times over.

     Could it ever happen again?

     "We'll see Grey Cups and Briers come along periodically," Pan Am chairman Sandy Riley said. "But I think what made this period so unusual was the World Junior Championships, and then followed right up by the Pan Ams.

     "Both of those were unusual, one-time events ... they don't happen every five or 10 years. They happen, if they do happen, every 30 or 40 years."

     For a few hundred thousand Manitobans, there couldn't have been a better way to usher in the new century.


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