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Gambling on the Games
Winnipeg has much at stake in Pan Ams
Posted: Saturday August 07, 1999 04:01 PM
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) -- Locals here joke about mosquitoes so large they can carry off small children and winter temperatures so frigid that it is the one way they always beat the rest of Canada.
Winnipeg's image -- or lack of one -- is almost matter of pride.
"I think most people don't know about us," says Mayor Glen Murray. "We're north of Minneapolis, so people think we're an iceberg."
So it's not a surprise that the city thought it would be great to put on a big international sporting event. Trouble is, they picked the Pan American Games.
Taking on 5,000 athletes, 41 sports and almost as many countries, this tortilla-flat town created a folksy regional Olympics that combined grand hopes with low expectations in a strategy that foreshadows the financial realities of sporting events to come.
Though still wildly popular in Latin America, Winnipeg found that there are consequences to the fact the games themselves aren't what they once were.
When Winnipeg played host to the 1967 Pan American Games, it was one of the largest multisport events outside of the Olympics, a launching pad for future greats such as sprinter John Carlos and swimmer Mark Spitz.
These days, with many individual federations holding their own championships, elite athletes have other things to do.
Basketball's Dream Team was busy in Puerto Rico, for example, only four days before the Pan Ams opened. NBA stars like Tim Duncan, Steve Smith and Jason Kidd qualified for Sydney in 2000. A cobbled bunch of CBA players went to Winnipeg.
In the first two weeks of the games, which end Sunday, only one world record was set -- Cuban weightlifter Hidalberto Aranda hoisted 453 pounds in the 77-kilogram clean-and-jerk.
Games officials realized early on that they would lack star power, signing Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Donovan Bailey to an appearance contract on home soil that reportedly paid $132,000.
Bailey -- who skipped the 100 here -- helped some, but the lack of top athletes showed in the stands, which were usually empty unless Canada was on the field. Games officials were reduced to taking out full-page ads to sell tickets for the closing ceremony.
The biggest news out of the games was negative -- a handful of high-profile drug failures, including world high-jump record holder Javier Sotomayor flunking a test for cocaine.
Much of trouble isn't Winnipeg's fault, sports marketers said. With the real Olympics now occurring every two years and the Goodwill Games, the Commonwealth Games and dozens of other international competitions saturating on cable in between, the Pan Ams found it impossible to attract attention, much less excitement, in the United States.
Scandals in the Olympic movement have by association tarnished the reputation of its lesser cousins in the public imagination, said Jed Pearsall of Performance Research, a Newport, R.I., marketing firm that evaluates events for corporate sponsors.
"We're finding that passion is less, less and less for international sporting events," he said. As for the Pan Ams, Pearsall was even more blunt.
"The athletes are most interested in the best event for their single category, and the Pan Am Games doesn't do that for any category," he said.
Unsure of what to expect, Pan Am officials budgeted for an almost doomsday scenario and worked hard to make up in warmth what the event lacked in glitz.
Limousines for VIPs were out; minivans were in. Superstar entertainers skipped the opening ceremony and were replaced by audience participation. Some 20,000 volunteers took on the grunt work, picking up trash and handing out results.
The games had a budget of $93.1 million, a figure so low that Pan Am press secretary Brian Koshul joked it probably wouldn't even buy the liniment needed for sore muscles in Salt Lake City, the 2002 Winter Olympic site with a budget of $1.5 billion.
The specter of the $1 billion debt Montreal incurred in playing host to the 1976 Olympics also pushed organizers to make fiscal restraint a top priority, planning for spectator projections so low they almost couldn't fail.
"I think there's a realization that there isn't a bottomless pot of money," said Bob McMahon, the chief operating officer for the Pan American Games Society Inc. "I think it's better to deliver what you promise than to have your expectations so high that you can't deliver."
McMahon said he was "absolutely confident we're going to break even."
This trading center nicknamed the "Chicago of the North" knows something about dashed expectations.
Once a bustling industrial center that served as the gateway for much of the settlement of western Canada, Winnipeg's economy stagnated in the 1970s, losing business to high taxes and talent to the booming oil towns like Calgary.
Now the eighth-largest city in Canada, economists say Winnipeg cashed in on the North American Free Trade Agreement, earning growth in the less-than-glamorous worlds of bus and furniture manufacture.
Looking to expand trade, the Pan Am Games offered an ideal way for this city to raise its profile in Latin American markets, no matter what happened in the United States.
It paid off. Brazil, one of Latin America's largest economies, sent 453 athletes and accredited 50 reporters to cover the games. Once the country started racking up the golds, even that wasn't enough.
The largest Brazilian television network, O Globo, has broken in to regular programming with live broadcasts and featured coverage every night.
Whether that helps the Winnipeg economy in the end is hard to measure.
"What it comes down to is what people carry in their heads and their heart," McMahon said.
One city that took close account of Winnipeg's efforts was Santo Domingo, site of the next Pan American Games in 2003. Delegation leader Luis Mejia Oviedo said he was busy lobbying the Pan American Sports Organization and individual federations to make certain the top talent appears.
"If you have good athletes," he said, "television will pay attention."
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