Pan Am Games Wrap Up

From the outset, hosting the 1999 PAN-AMERICAN GAMES was seen by many Winnipeggers as a chance to put their city squarely in the international spotlight.

Pan Am Games Wrap Up

From the outset, hosting the 1999 PAN-AMERICAN GAMES was seen by many Winnipeggers as a chance to put their city squarely in the international spotlight. And as the 17-day sporting extravaganza drew to a close last weekend, it was clear that the Games had done just that - though not always in the manner civic boosters might have envisioned. Drug scandals (three) and political defections (five) by visiting athletes or hangers-on generated lavish media coverage. The Pan-Am Games, so often dismissed as a sedate stepsister of the OLYMPICS, had suddenly become a hot ticket.

The intrigue began even before the Games were under way, when Cuban pistol shooter Juncosa Reyes sought political asylum in Canada. He was soon joined by at least three other reported refugees from one of the world's last Communist outposts, including a reporter, a softball coach and a track-and-field star. The cheeky Winnipeg Sun published a step-by-step guide for would-be defectors and ran a contest urging readers to predict the number of Cubans who would flee the island state before the Games were over. Back in Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro raged that the Canadian media were "exhorting people to defect" and for a time it looked as if Canada-Cuban relations were heading for the Dumpster.

Controversy erupted again on Aug. 1, when Pan-Am officials stripped the Canadian in-line hockey team of its gold medal after discovering that goaltender Steve Vézina had taken three banned substances, including huge amounts of anabolic steroids. Last week, when Vézina finally confronted reporters, he conceded that he was a doper, but quibbled over whether he was a cheater: Vézina noted that the drugs he had consumed were common among professional hockey players and claimed he didn't know which substances were banned from amateur competitions. His mates were not amused and several spoke publicly about the possibility of launching a lawsuit against Vézina for loss of the $3,000 each in prize money that goes along with a medal in their sport. "It's certainly an option," said teammate Mike Martin. "He cost us a lot of money, embarrassment and emotions."

By midweek, however, Vézina's transgression had been overshadowed by an even more startling revelation. Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor lost his gold medal after testing positive for cocaine. Sotomayor is the Wayne Gretzky of the high-jumping world and an iconic figure in his homeland. The first person to clear eight feet in the high jump, he holds 17 of the 25 top records in the sport. Cuban sporting officials rallied around Sotomayor, professing his innocence and hinting darkly that he'd been framed. Back in Cuba, Sotomayor took a similar stance. "I have only seen that substance [cocaine] in the movies," he told the Communist party daily Granma. "I am a victim." The director of the Montreal-area drug lab that did the urine testing for the Games said the performance-enhancing drug was taken not long before the gold-medal leap.

The rapid-fire controversies threatened to obscure the fact that, for Canadian athletes at least, the 1999 Pan-Am Games marked a watershed. With just a few events remaining, by Saturday Canada had accumulated 54 gold, 43 silver and 69 bronze medals - the country's best showing ever in Pan-Am competitions. Last week alone, Canadian supremacy was evident in several fields, but nowhere more than in the swimming pool. Among the gold-medal performances: Calgary's Curtis Myden, 25, in the 400-m individual medley; Vancouver's Jessica Deglau, 19, in the women's 200-m freestyle and Winnipeg's Kelly Stefanyshyn, 17, who wowed the home-town crowd with her victory in the 100-m backstroke.

As for WINNIPEG itself, the Games proved, at times, to be a mixed blessing. Despite sluggish advance sales, organizers said that by last Friday they had sold 464,000 tickets - homing in on their target of 500,000. As well, Sunday's closing ceremonies at the 23,000-seat Winnipeg Stadium were looking like a sellout - thanks in part to the Guess Who, the legendary Winnipeg rock group whose members performed together for the first time since 1983. And while the scent of scandal guaranteed plenty of international ink, a survey compiled by the Winnipeg Free Press showed that not all of the attention was flattering. True, The Washington Post praised Winnipeg's multicultural character and vibrant arts scene. However, the Los Angeles Times declared that Winnipeg's Games were "this summer's place not to be," while The Dallas Morning News deemed Winnipeg "this northern version of the Bermuda Triangle, this outpost city within an outpost nation."

The spotlight is sometimes harsh.

Maclean's August 16, 1999