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Pan American Games highlight busy 2015 for sports in Canada

12/23/2014 09:51 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - A year before the curtain goes up on the 2016 Rio Olympics, Canada's top summer athletes will be playing their hearts out on home soil.

Toronto is hosting the 2015 Pan American Games — a direct Olympic qualifying event for many athletes, and a rare chance to compete in front of a Canadian crowd for virtually all of them.

Canada is fielding its largest-ever Pan Am Games team of 700 athletes, and has set a goal of finishing second in the medals — behind perennial champion U.S. — with 160.

Some 6,600 athletes from 41 countries will compete in 36 Pan Am sports — including 28 Olympic sports — plus 15 Parapan Am sports.

Toronto beat out Lima, Peru and Bogota, Colombia, to host the Pan Ams, which run July 10-26. The Parapan Am Games are Aug. 7-14.

Here are five Pan Am storylines to watch:

The Road to Rio: When Canada's men's field hockey team edged Argentina in a sudden-death shootout at the 2007 Pan Ams in Rio, it clinched the Canadians a spot in the Beijing Games. It was one of the most memorable moments of Rio.

"Any time an Olympic berth is on the line it's super exciting," said former Canadian field hockey captain Ken Pereira. "We didn't play well throughout the tournament, all our games were close. But our best game was our finals versus Argentina. We were chasing and behind the whole game and tied it up with under three minutes."

The Toronto Pan Ams will be an Olympic qualifier for 19 sports — either directly or indirectly — setting up some thrilling do-or-die moments. With direct qualifiers such as field hockey and men's water polo, it's as simple as: win and go to Rio.

Among the direct qualifiers: men's and women's field hockey, men's water polo, three-metre and 10-metre individual diving, all three equestrian events (dressage, eventing, jumping), handball, modern pentathlon, sailing (laser and laser radial), shooting (rifle, pistol and shot gun), table tennis and triathlon.

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Games Debuts: A year before speedy winger Magali Harvey — the 2014 IRB women's player of the year — and her Canadian women's rugby teammates make their Olympic debut in Rio, they'll play in their first-ever Pan Am tournament. The men's game made its Pan Am debut in 2011, where Canada won gold.

Golf, canoe slalom, and women's baseball will also make their Pan Am debuts in Toronto. The golf competition could provide a sneak peak of the Olympics. The sport was on the Olympic program in 1900 and 1904, and will finally make its Olympic return in 2016 in Rio.

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Non-Olympic sports: When Stubby Clapp hit his bases-loaded single in the 11th inning against the U.S. at the 1999 Pan Ams in Winnipeg, it put Canadian baseball on the map. Clapp became a household name. Baseball is one of eight non-Olympic sports at the Toronto Pan Ams. This will be their biggest multi-sport experience, and a chance to show they deserve to be on the Olympic program.

"I think it changed a lot of guys' careers," Clapp said of the '99 Pan Ams. "That tournament was important for me because I was able to showcase my individual talents, but it was more important for us as a country and as a program that was up and coming, and for all the guys who worked so hard to give our country a good baseball program."

The seven other non-Olympic sports are water-skiing, wakeboard, racquetball, squash, baseball, softball, karate and bowling.

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Stars are Born: Perdita Felicien was just out of college when she won silver in the 100-metre hurdles at the 2003 Pan Ams in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Jamaican Brigitte Foster-Hylton won the gold. Weeks later, Felicien would go on to win the world championships, and she and Foster-Hylton would go on to be two of the world's best for the next decade.

"The Pan Am games was the arena I needed to grow my competitive instincts as an athlete," Felicien said. "It's a world class competition that builds champions, without it as a platform, I wouldn't have gone on to enjoy 10 years as one of the world's best hurdlers."

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The Controversy: There's been criticism over the budget. It was originally announced at $1.4 billion — not including the $709 million cost of the athletes' village — but is now expected to top $2.57 billion. Security costs were most recently in the news, with organizers estimating costs of $247.4 million, more than double the original estimate of $121.9 million in Toronto's bid for the Games.

There's been staffing issues, including the firing of CEO Ian Troop a year ago.

Traffic will be a concern for what some are already calling the "Gridlock Games." With plans to implement HOV lanes to ferry athletes and officials, residents and businesses have been warned to look for transportation options for next summer.

And the big question remains: Will Torontonians, with so many entertainment options, embrace the Games?

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