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Pan Am Games: 10 things we've learned

07/26/2015 03:00 EDT | Updated 07/26/2016 05:59 EDT
From Canada's sterling performance to the impressive organization, Toronto pulled off the Pan Am Games in grand style.

Here are 10 things we've learned:

1. Toronto can handle big events, but that's not the question

There was much hand wringing before the Pan Am Games about the city's ability to run an event of this size that pretty much from Day 1 was put to rest as all responded with aplomb and the show was terrific.

We saw no mess in the HOV driving lanes, security was fine (though haphazard at times), athletes arrived where they were supposed to, when they were supposed to, more than a million tickets were sold, and the public transit plan did its job.

So we can do something bigger, even an Olympics, but should we?

These Games reportedly cost somewhere in the middle of $2 to $3 billion and the Olympics would be well north of that. With the International Olympic Committee now saying a more regional event, rather than one jammed into a small space of downtown Toronto, is acceptable, it means other communities in southern Ontario could help with the cost and share the legacy.

Whatever is decided, the question of handling the responsibility is one already answered.

2. Chantal van Landeghem stands tall in the pool

It was hard not to be struck by swimmer Chantal Van Landeghem's size when she stood on the podium to receive a silver medley relay medal along with her teammates at the Pan Am pool complex.

Not only did the six-foot-three (191 cm) phenom tower over the other three Canadians, but the top of her head was even with that of the Americans, a step up on the gold platform.

This is merely an expression of physical stature, however. It's what happened on the first night in the pool that set the measure of her 21-year-old heart.

First, the Winnipeg native chased down her childhood hero Natalie Coughlin (12-time Olympic medallist for the U.S. and coming to the end of her career) in the 100-metre freestyle with a world-class time of 53.83 seconds. Then, she did it again on the anchor of the sprint relay for another gold.

Swimming coaches and officials asked that night all said there's a lot more to come for van Landeghem.

3. Someone needs to call FINA, pronto

Byron MacDonald thinks Toronto is ready for another huge event on the sports calendar – the 2021 World Aquatics Championships.

This is one of the two "mini-Olympics" (along with the World Athletics Championships) that features the global best in swimming, diving, synchro, water polo and open water.

"I think bottom line is you've got this facility [the new Pan Am pool in Scarborough], you've got the Markham facility now [hosted water polo] and you could spread over to the Etobicoke (Olympium) facility and for a warm-up facility you could use the University of Toronto," said MacDonald, a former Olympian and a long-time swim coach and organizer.

A world aquatics (2021 is open) would bring all the world's stars here and focus attention on the region. Politicians like paying for that.

4. Volunteerism is not dead

More than 23,000 people, clad in what one person with colour sense described as light marigold shirts, freely gave of their time to the Pan Ams and as a group they were superb.

You saw them doing everything from picking up trash and cleaning port-a-potties to directing people and helping run the media areas.

Always courteous (and yes, with that many there would have been a few grumpy or clueless ones), willing to help even when in the early days they didn't know the answer either, and properly organized.

You wanted to get all 23,000 together for a group hug. A thank you will have to suffice.

5. Never underestimate the power of home cooking

Damian Warner said his scorching final lap in the decathlon 1,500m run that broke Michael Smith's long-standing national record was spurred on by the noise of the Canadian supporters.

This was a theme athletes repeated endlessly in media mixed zones from Oshawa to Welland, Minden down to Toronto's lakeshore – I was pushed to my personal best, or Pan Am record, or national record by the sound of the crowd.

A swimmer left the press smiling when asked if she could hear the screaming under the water. "No, under the water you can only hear water." But head up, ahh … it was nuts in that pool venue and everywhere else.

More than once during the Games, one's eardrums threatened to quit.

6. Milton built it in the middle of a field, and people came

Few venues were more criticized when announced than the $56-million cycling venue smack in the middle of farmer's fields, south of Milton, northwest of Toronto.

Who would come to watch? Would it be a white elephant? Could the community benefit?

Well, a lot more people know where Milton is now because the crowds flocked out to watch the thrilling track events on the banked Siberian hardwood, and the town's name is now on the radar of world cycling officials.

This is one of only two velodromes (the other in L.A.) in North America that can hold global events, we're told, and it will permanently be home to Cycling Canada's track program. Also, there is a fitness centre, walking and running track, volleyball, basketball and badminton courts for the residents.

Nice job, Milton.

7. $35 for a seat on your seat?

To save $1 million or so, the organizers chose not to build a track for the two-day inline speed skating event on the Pan Am aquatic centre land, and instead resurfaced a local high school oval five minutes up the road.

About 250 fans paid $35 a ticket to sit on the grass in over 30 C heat. Worse, anyone could have walked over to the fence right behind them, set up a lawn chair and had the same view for no charge, and a number did.

This venue was the exception that proved the rule because pretty much everywhere else worked out nicely. Making the school venue free was the way to go.

8. A lot of sports we've barely heard of are apparently big time in South and Central America

When we arrived at the bowling venue earlier this week, the media room was filled with press from the other Americas, reporting on the men's team competition. That was a surprise.

Same with roller figure skating, inline roller skating, racquetball, fencing and on.  

It taught a lesson about national conceit. One woman's small sport may be another's big deal.

One other note: Someone forgot to tell the Central and South Americans these Games apparently didn't matter because their media was here in force.

9. BMX needs a downhill race

If ever a sport needed more events, it's BMX cycling, a popular draw that only ran for two days at a new venue in Etobicoke's Centennial Park.

Then it was over, just like that. Men's and women's heats, semis and finals.

Give us more. How about BMX downhill (You have to watch that on You Tube), or a BMX distance challenge, or a relay?

The IOC is not big on bringing in more judged events so the tricks aren't going to work, but this sport deserves to be stretched over double the days.

10.  Canada is ready to go the distance

If you want an idea of why this country has emerged again as a distance running nation after a generation, look into the passionate eyes of national men's coach Dave Scott-Thomas. Listen to him talk about the job coaches are doing with their individual athletes all across the nation, and you become convinced this sudden depth is real.

From Chuck Philibert-Thiboutot and six other men under three minutes, 40 seconds in the 1,500m, to Lanni Marchant and Natasha Wodak in the 10 kilometre and marathon, there are emerging competitors everywhere.

Scott-Thomas told us Canada could have an unprecedented 10 athletes in Olympic finals at Rio in 2016.

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