Recently, Santiago de Chile hosted the Pan-American Games between 20th October and 5th November and, as an exchange student here, I was lucky enough to go and see them. Although there is no doubt that such a large sporting event brings a certain moral boost to the city, the overall success of the host country, as well as the games themselves, were brought into question during the tournament.
The games were established in 1948, and the first official games took place in 1951 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since then, the games have continued to grow, and according to Jaime Pumarejo, the mayor of Barranquilla, Colombia, who will host the 2027 games, it is the ‘second most important sporting event in the world’ in terms of number of athletes and disciplines, after the Olympics. However, despite being such a large sporting event, this year saw the Games’ integrity being put under scrutiny with several embarrassing gaffes.
Although $507 million worth of investment went into these games, there were some notable mishaps. While excessive rubbish and leftover construction materials marred the opening ceremony, and a leak in the roof put an early end to the women’s handball semi-final, perhaps the most notable error was that of the women’s 20km racewalk. Peru’s Gabriela Kimberly García won the race with an unbelievable time of 1 hour 12 minutes and 26 seconds, which seemingly smashed China’s Jiayu Yung’s world record time of 1:23:49. However, this feat was soon brought back down to earth with the realisation that the course was around 3km short. While her medal still stands, her time will not be eligible to contribute towards her Paris 2024 Olympic Games bid.
Moments like this, which shortchange the athletes in their successes, put not only the integrity of the organisers into question, but also the integrity of the games themselves, leaving athletes questioning their importance and relevance to professional athletes. It is no secret that countries like the USA and Brazil do not send their top athletes to the competition, but instead use it as a platform for younger athletes to gain experience for more ‘worthwhile’ events such as the Olympics. Nevertheless, this choice does not impact their chances at medals, with USA and Brazil topping the medals table with 286 and 205 medals respectively. Given the easy domination of these nations and the embarrassing gaffes this year, it could be argued that it is time to pull the plug on the Pan-American Games.
Despite all of this, there is no doubt that the Pan-American games continue to bring joy and a morale boost to the host city, as well as to the Americas in general. During the games, I visited Buenos Aires in Argentina, where they are currently facing an economic and political crisis. However, despite these devastating issues, the national pride for their athletes competing was abundantly clear.
Whether through billboard advertising or broadcasts in local cafes, it was evident that the whole country was behind their competing teams, demonstrating the power of sports to lift the mood of a country. Back in Chile, I spoke to volunteer Camila, who told me of her experience of the games. She explained to me how the games filled her with pride and that ‘for the majority of Santiago, it will be an event that they will not forget’. Her national pride was clear to see when speaking about the games, and this sentiment was clear across the city for the duration of the tournament.
While of course, the integrity and professionalism of the games and athletes are integral to the smooth running of an event such as the Pan-American games, I believe that it is the impact of sport on a city, country, or even continent that makes their continuation so important. Despite the current affairs and turmoil that a country may face at any given moment, sport offers a moment of relief to remember why you love your country in the first place.
Allowing nations to have these times to relish in success and band together in commiseration is as important as the execution of the sport itself. While it is important to strive for the best, amongst the disorganisation and debacles, the Pan-American games offered an important fortnight of sporting entertainment for the Americas, and it is certainly one that I won’t forget.
Image: Victor San Martin via Wikimedia Commons