Pan Am opening ceremony puts Toronto on notice: embrace the games

It’s been said that the Pan Am Games aren’t big-league enough for Toronto (mainly by Torontonians). But if Friday night’s opening ceremony wasn’t sufficiently world-class, then it can be fairly said that the city suffers not from a complex of inferiority, but delusions of grandiosity. If this wasn’t big enough for Toronto, nothing could ever be so.

Let’s start at the end, where the last steps of the Pan Am torch relay run included the 1984 Olympic silver medal-winning women’s 4x400 team running a torch relay around the stadium floor (with a little confusion) at the Pan Am Dome (that's what we're calling the Rogers Centre today). The relay included Marita Payne-Wiggins, who then passed the torch to her son Andrew, who just happens to be a Toronto native and, also the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year. Wiggins ran into the stands, passing the flame to basketball legend Steve Nash, who then ran out of the stadium and to the base of the CN Tower, where he ignited the cauldron that will hold the Pan Am flame throughout the games. And then, real actual fireworks shot out of the CN Tower, high above Toronto and the world, lighting up the Friday night sky in a bold proclamation that the Pan Am Games are here, and just try to keep ignoring them.

Now, if you wander five kilometres away - far from any games venue, official hotel, or tourist attraction – you’re likely, as one New York Times reporter did, to find at least one person who’s disinterested in the Pan Am Games. And one is all you need to fashion a narrative of a city that’s unenthused, inconvenienced, and blasé about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the city’s waterfront has been springing to life, more and more each day, with a rising energy, if not anticipation. To miss that something big is going on here, you’d have to willfully be ignoring it.

And there are signs that yes, awareness is up, and excitement is building, and Toronto might be ready to embrace these Games. The New York Times article chose as a photo a “Toronto” sign that was being erected at Nathan Phillips Square, home of City Hall. In their image, the sign is still under construction, perhaps an illustration that the city wasn’t quite ready yet. By Friday, that had changed; the Toronto sign had become a popular tourist photo destination, and mayor John Tory was talking about keeping it up long past the end of the games. The square, meanwhile, hosted thousands of onlookers watching the opening ceremony on big screens. the mood, one watcher said, was "a really good vibe."

We don’t know if it's possible to win the hearts and minds of a skeptical city in one tidy three-hour package, but the organizers of TO2015 did their best. The advantage of hosting an event that doesn’t have to please the full global audience is the latitude to cater to your base, and Friday’s opening ceremony did that in spades. Staged by Cirque de Soleil, the show told the stories of athletes, countries and dreams, and carried a Canadian star power that made Wayne Gretzky’s ride in the back of a pickup truck in Vancouver five years ago look like, well, Wayne Gretzky riding in the back of a pickup truck. Chris Hadfield, Bobby Orr, Mark Messier, Simon Whitfield, and Ferguson Jenkins were flag-holders; Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the audience and nobody in the building even noticed.

Canada reconvened all five 1996 men’s 4x100 Olympic gold medalists to run a torch relay through the streets of Toronto, culminating with Bruny Surin running a lap around the EdgeWalk of the CN Tower, before passing the torch to Donovan Bailey, who simulated a BASE jump off the tower to the roof of the Dome before being lowered, torch aloft, from the high rafters to the main stage. And that was all in the first eight minutes of the ceremony.

If nothing else, the Pan Am Games opening ceremony is a good way to get to know your Antiguas from your Arubas and your Paraguays from your Uruguays. Maybe Russia and the U.K. and some of the countries we associate with the Olympic movement aren’t here, but the enormity of the contingents from Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico and the U.S., in addition to host Canada, showed that for some Tier 1 countries, these games are in fact a very big deal.

And, man, the exuberance.  No stoic nervous Olympic entrances here; the athletes primped and preened for the crowd, posed for selfies, and danced around the stage floor. And when the Cubans decided to spread out and take up two sections of seats, the El Salvador team just sat down with them, side by side, and got things mingling before the games were even underway. On the other hand, the British Virgin Island and U.S. Virgin Islands groups sure kept their distance; there were spaced further apart than the actual islands.  That might be a rivalry to watch.

The point of the Pan Am Games is to provide a world-class competition for its member nations the year before the Summer Olympics, and to strengthen the summer sports in those nations. In short, it’s the building block Canadians always say we should have focused on at the end of each Olympic cycle. The 5000 athletes who walked Friday are those building blocks, and they got their due, from the ceremony and the crowd.

But the opening ceremony is always more about the spectacle, and this was some spectacle. There was fire-dancing, and a hip hop lacrosse game, and a tribute to the water bomber, and an homage to Canadian broadcasting pioneer Reginald Fessenden, and aerial gymnastics, and the talents of the National Ballet, the Toronto Dance Theatre, and the National Circus School. Also, trains, and ladders, and BMX bikes. When the BMX riders get an ovation from the athletes, you know they’re good.

Edgars Apse is a contractor and one of 625 performers who helped stage the show. He’s also a Toronto resident, so he’s heard all the griping about HOV lanes, expense scandals and budget overruns. And he doesn’t care, because he thinks these games are going to win the city over, in the end.

After tonight, the efforts become good memories,” Apse said Friday.

“It is exciting to be a part of the key activity that will suddenly affect positivity and excitement in a city that has been focused on complaining. We suddenly become the momentum drivers. Totally worth it.”

That momentum, if there’s any justice, started on Friday night.

Saad Rafi, chief executive officer of the 2015 games welcomed the world’s athletes, and he laid what might as well have been a challenge to the people of Toronto to change their tune and jump on board. He extolled the virtues of Toronto’s multiculturalism, and turned Toronto’s habit of cheering more for the homeland than for the Maple Leaf back onto the people of the city.

“Welcome. Welcome to a place that feels like home,” Rafi said.

What you’ll see is our Canadian hearts are big. They swell with pride in the country we love…but they leave room for the country of origin. So while Team Canada brings us rushing to our feet, athletes from the homeland still bring tears to our eyes. This makes for the most inclusive and welcoming society you will ever see. And this makes for the loudest and supportive sports fans you will ever hear.”

It’s almost a dare; take these two weeks, Toronto, and prove you’re as big-time as you say you are.  Embrace Canada, or any other nation with which you identify; just embrace.

And, everyone seems to agree, it’s time for the whining to stop. Vicki Hll, a writer for the Calgary Herald, shared what felt like a common sentiment from people watcging the opening ceremony.

It was a night that began and ended atop the CN Tower, high above Toronto, higher than many thought these games could go. If this was a signal that Toronto is ready for an Olympic bid, the organizers certainly showed they know how to bring up a curtain.

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