INDIANAPOLIS, AUG. 6 -- The Pan American Games began as a way to establish sporting friendships in the Western Hemisphere, to build amateur athletics in regions that wanted an entre' to top international competition and to provide a gala event in the year before the Olympics. Those aims have been partly achieved and partly not in the nine games that have been held in places ranging from Buenos Aires to Caracas.
The 10th annual games will open Saturday in this Midwest city, and sure to be follow will be some new athletic records, colorful and bizarre moments and geopolitical spats.
Between 3,500 to 4,000 athletes from 38 Western Hemisphere countries will compete in a record 27 sports. Some of the athletes will gain recognition, some will gain notoriety and some will complain about poor housing. But these "hemispheric Olympics" will be, as usual, an intriguing if sometimes poor imitation of the real thing.
Some of the more memorable events of past games: in 1983 in Caracas, 15 athletes were disqualified when their drug testing results were positive. In 1979, U.S. basketball coach Bob Knight was arrested for punching a Puerto Rican policeman. In Winnipeg in 1967, Mark Spitz won five gold medals as a preview of his seven-gold performance at the Munich Olympics. At the Chicago games in 1959, a pentathalon horse bolted the wrong way into a parking lot.
The first Pan Am games were held in Buenos Aires among 2,513 athletes from 21 nations. This was the culmination of several years of effort to mount the games dating back to 1932, an effort interrupted by World War II, among other things. The idea was first proposed by Mexico at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but it would be 19 years before the idea was sucessfully carried out. But once it was, it added a much-needed international competition for athletes who had only the Olympics to shoot for.
"If you've been to the Olympics, the Pan Am games are a letdown," said former track star Willye White, who attended five Olympics and four Pan Ams during her career. "But I did it because I needed the competition. Whatever exposure you could get, you took."
But from the beginning it was clear that politics would not be held at bay. In 1951 in Buenos Aires, it was an immediate issue, for Juan and Eva Peron presided over the opening ceremonies and used them as a showcase for his presidency; he was up for reelection the following year. The games were marked by a windstorm that damaged facilities and a gold medal for the U.S. basketball team, which was comprised of half the Indiana State varsity.
In Mexico City in 1955, the Pan Am games served mainly to convince athletes that events could be conducted at high altitude. A total of 22 Pan Am records were set in track and field, and Lou Jones of the United States broke the world record in the 400-meter dash with a time of 45.40. The success of the games was intrumental in bringing the Olympics to Mexico 13 years later.
The Chicago Pan Am games of 1959 are fondly remembered by those who attended, chiefly because the accommodations were superior to most of the others over the years, which occasionally have been dreadful. The games were also eventful, and marked by some bad luck.
In the modern pentathlon, a rider from Uruguay strayed from the course and into a parking lot, bowling down a spectator and breaking a car headlight. In fencing, judges didn't show up for an event, and one swordsman was stuck in the hand by an opponent. In men's basketball, a U.S. team led by Oscar Robertson set a one-game scoring record by beating Cuba, 114-46. This was after a Cuban player was ejected for kicking Robertson in the stomach.
It was also the games in which the U.S. track team set 15 records. On the team was Wilma Rudolph, who won a gold in the 400-meter track relay and would become a major star in the 1960 Olympics.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1963, the games were notable primarily for the United States' 109 gold medals and political infighting that almost kept Cuba out of competition. Fidel Castro had said U.S. athletes did not want Cubans at the games, and had called sports events political activities. In the end, the Cubans came.
The games moved to Winnipeg in 1967, where Prince Philip of England presided bareheaded over an opening ceremony that took place in a deluge. The eternal flame was nearly doused and the 2,500 pigeons released got wet and didn't fly where they were supposed to. But it was a watery event, in general, for Spitz made himself known with five swimming golds. So did another still obscure athlete: Arthur Ashe. At the time an Army lieutenant from Richmond, he won a bronze in men's tennis and a gold in mixed doubles.
Cali, Colombia, was the site of tense games. Security was everywhere because of threats of violence. It was a year in which Frank Shorter won the 10,000 meters with a Pan Am record, and then also won the marathon. Duane Bobick won a gold in boxing, which was a controversial sport. Reginald Jones won a decision for the U.S. over Bonifacio Avila of Colombia, precipitating a near riot in the stands. Bottles were flung at the ring, and police protected the judges and referee by holding up folding chairs as they escorted them away.
The games returned to Mexico City in 1975, which was the site of Bruce Jenner's Pan Am record in the decathlon.
San Juan in 1979 will long be remembered because of Knight's altercation with a policeman. Knight allegedly hit the policeman in an argument over use of a gym. His team won the gold medal, and Knight went home. He later was convicted of aggravated assault, sentenced to six months in jail and fined $500, penalties that remain outstanding. He has said in the past that when the Pan Am games came to Indianapolis, he would go on a fishing trip.
Drug testing overshadowed the last games. Caracas was the site of the first extensive and sophisticated testing for Pan Am athletes, with the result that 15 athletes failed, mainly because of anabolic steroids. Two of the U.S. athletes were sent home, and 12 more returned voluntarily, citing personal reasons, although denying that it had anything to do with testing.