With 2015 Pan Am Games closed, Olympic bid is inevitable - and appropriate

Canadian athletes enter the stadium for the closing ceremony of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games
Canadian athletes enter the stadium for the closing ceremony of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games

Who doesn’t love a good closing ceremony? The crowd is pumped up, the volunteers are exhausted, the athletes have already been partying for an hour, or three, or 48. Whether it’s the Olympics, or the Commonwealth Games, or, in this case, the final night of the 2015 Pan Am Games, it’s a party.

This party has an undertone, of course: is it all a tuneup for a 2024 Olympic bid? If it was, it’s hard to argue that it was anything but a resounding success. Over a million tickets were sold to Pan Am Games events, and selling a million tickets to anything is a lot of tickets sold. For an event that got half-assed support from the city’s media in the run-up to the games, it’s a miracle.

The games themselves wrapped up Sunday afternoon, and onto the stadium they went. 3200 athletes; and the audience, appreciative in the presence of greatness, welcomed them with love. When you’re competing, you don't see just how wild the crowd is, and so it takes a night like this for them to take a deep sweet breath and realize what’s been going on here.

Make no mistake: what went on here was special. The 2015 Pan Am Games may have wrapped up Sunday night at the Pan Am Dome, but for Toronto, what these games leave behind will be transformative.

The boon to amateur athletics in Canada from these games is immeasurable. For a country that prefers to ignore amateur sports, but feels entitled to demand success at the Olympics, the biggest city in the land had the Canadian developmental system shoved down its throat, and that’s a good thing. Nobody knew who Ellie Black was before she won three gold medals among five overall in gymnastics. Andre De Grasse was a college junior two months ago; now he’s the next great Canadian sprinting hope, with two gold medals and the fastest relay second leg this country has ever seen. He’s got ambition, and so many others do too. Jamal Murray used to be an incoming Kentucky freshman; for one night, he made Canadians forget about Andrew Wiggins. Maybe Canada sent its biggest team ever to the 2015 Pan Am Games, but the fact is 78 individuals or teams stood atop the podium, and 217 medals went to Canadians who will be looking ahead to Rio in 2016 with that little bit of confidence. They used to be invisible; now they’re invincible.

So Gavin Smellie stepped on a line and cost Canada a gold medal in the 4x100 relay. You’d have to be a hack to dwell on that; what mattered was the performance, and there wasn’t a soul worth remembering in the CIBC Athletics Stadium on Saturday night who didn’t walk away from Canada’s dominating performance, and De Grasse’s second leg, without flashing back to Atlanta, and Canada’s great relay teams of old. It would have been fitting for the 2015 sprinters to dig out a gold medal, to take the torch from the 1996 crew that opened these games by carrying the torch to Toronto. But the Pan Am Games are all about development, and Canada’s relay team will carry that torch forward, lumps and all.

Missteps aside, there’s plenty of national pride to carry forward. Canada beat the US at men’s baseball, men’s basketball, women’s softball, the 100m, and the 200m. There were plenty of other wins, but those are five events where the Americans are supposed to dominate, and were instead found wanting. “It sure would be nice to beat them once” is no longer a thing; the Canadians, so many of them, are champions in their own eyes, and now, in the eyes of the world.

After the athletes had entered the stadium Sunday, they were treated to a dance display representing Toronto’s unique cultures, few of which had anything to do with the Pan Am Games. And that’s the point, perhaps; if you thought Toronto fit well within the Americas, look what it could do when China, India and Ireland come to town.

To open the games, they set off fireworks from the CN Tower. To close the games, they set off fireworks inside the Pan Am Dome. Long before Kanye hit the stage, the 2015 organizers had made it quite clear that they could not care less of the opinions of those who thought the Pan Am Games were either too small, or too expensive, or too spread out, or too injurious to summer driving patterns.

“Staging these games gave us a new confidence in ourselves,” said Pan Am Games CEO Saad Rafi on Sunday night.

“This region is now a different place. This region was transformed.”

Ivar Sisniega, vice president of the Pan American Sports Organization, thanked Toronto for the use of its HOV lanes, which was either incredibly earnest or artful trolling. But he also commended Toronto for its “Olympic-level” athletes’ village, organization, and hospitality. It was nothing less than a live recommendation for the 2024 Olympic bid which now seems inevitable.

Critics have bemoaned the facilities that go into these events. It’s easy to point at Montreal’s abandoned Olympic Stadium as an example of an investment that cost taxpayers heavily. But that was 40 years ago, and the lessons learned then have been adopted by Vancouver, Calgary, and even Toronto. Meanwhile, here’s a little story about the legacy of these buildings.

The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre opened in September 2014. It was built for the Pan Am Games and hosted the swimming and diving events. Canada won a combined 38 medals in the two sports in 2015. When the games are over, the building will serve as a multipurpose training centre for elite athletes, including Canada’s up-and-comers. My nephew Henry won two gold medals at the junior elite national diving championships last weekend. He’ll be competing in the junior Pan Am diving championships this fall in Cuba; two years ago, he won a gold and a bronze at the Junior Pan Am Games. He, along with some of his junior national teammates, have been invited to train at the new Toronto facility next year. Henry is 15. The legacy of this building could mean a spot on the 2019 Pan Am team, and maybe the Olympics down the road. Imagine a diver competing at the Toronto 2024 Olympics, in large part because they could train at a facility that was built for the 2015 Pan Am Games? It’s not a stretch.

By the time Pitbull and Kanye hit the stage, the message was clear: Toronto thinks highly of its athletic events, and has aspirations to go even higher, faster, stronger. Even Kanye didn't want to leave the party; he kept playing until the producers cut his mic (or the mic broke, depending on who's telling the story), providing a somewhat awkward-finish to his otherwise-energetic performance. 

That some may not be on board with an Olympic bid means little. The 2015 Pan Am Games may be over, but if the Canadian Olympic Committee and Toronto organizers have their way, we’ll be seeing a lot more parties.

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