At one point 14 marathoners wound their way through commuter traffic along Lake Shore Drive, but the impact upon the sporting fan of Chicago would probably have been greater had two newsboys decided to run a foot race across the Loop. While 2,200 athletes from 24 nations tugged and ran and sweated and strained for two weeks in the third annual Pan American Games, hardly anyone bothered to look. You could find one competition or another going on in the 28 different locations in and around the city, but it was August of 1959 and Chicago was more interested in the White Sox.
This does not mean, however, that this quadrennial spectacle of amateur sport was a failure physically or esthetically—if it was monetarily—or that the athletes strained in vain. For those who cared to watch, it was a delightful show. The United States, as expected, dominated the meet by virtue of both prowess and sheer weight of numbers, but the other countries could glory in some brilliant individual achievements. And they probably had more fun.
From the day the big carnival opened, it was apparent that this would be one of the worst-attended international athletic spectacles of all time. There were reasons: it was hot, and Chicago had been souped up all summer over festivals and trade fairs and visits from Russians and queens. And, naturally, the Sox. So while attendance did improve as Chicago caught some of the festive spirit despite itself, never were the walls of any stadium in danger of being battered down.
At first, it appeared that snafus and complaints would set back the Good Neighbor policy 15 years. Quarters for the athletes were good and so were most of the competition sites, but transportation between the two was miserable. Adequate pre-game training facilities were lacking. The Cal-Sag Canal, site of the rowing competition, had one thing to recommend it: water. But there were no boat racks, no showers, no drinking fountains, no food, not even a hot dog. Visiting equestrians were offered the use of $3-an-hour rented horses that had never jumped in their lives. The dietary staff at the women's quarters had apparently never seen an athlete; the original menu offered spaghetti and fudge cake.
But eventually the complaints began to fade away. The new track at Soldier Field was splendid, the new Olympic pool magnificent, the new bike-racing strip just fine. Steaks supplanted spaghetti, and the bus service to all points smoothed out. And, finally, the entire operation meshed so well that it took a tubful of fish dumped into the water jump on the steeplechase course and a sit-down strike by Haitian soccer players over questionable officiating to liven things up. Chicago, planning and preparing furiously in a short 18 months, had done a wonderful job.
It is an unsentimental and deadening truth, however, that an athletic contest must involve some uncertainty over the outcome to maintain its status. As far as team achievement was concerned, there never was any; in the individual events, there wasn't much more. The Pan American Games were a U.S. show.
An exception was the men's 400-meter dash, where George Kerr, of the West Indian Federation by way of the University of Illinois, ran away from everyone and led a 1-2-3 West Indian sweep of the event. In the 1,600-meter relay, Kerr, with three other U.S.-trained West Indians, won again. Berta Diaz, a doll from Cuba, flitted over the high hurdles to win going away. Lieutenant Wensceslau Malta, a paratrooper in the Brazilian army, survived the harrowing adventures which felled his opposition at every step, and won the games' most hilarious event, the pentathlon (see page 76). Lovely Marlene Ahrens of Chile became the women's javelin champ; Juan Torres of Cuba won a gold medal in weight lifting; Osvaldo Suarez of Argentina ran off with the 10,000 meters; and svelte Adhemar Ferreira da Silva of Brazil, for years the best hop, step and jumper alive, kangarooed to an easy win in his event despite an injured leg.
Most of these Latin-American victories, tucked into the agate type of U.S. newspapers, earned front-page headlines back home. And when Mexico's fine tennis team—Yolanda Ramirez and Rosa Reyes in women's doubles, Gustavo and Antonio Pala-fox in men's doubles—joined Luis Ayala of Chile to carry off three of four championships, Mexico City newspapers not only blared forth the news but knocked a major political address down to soapbox size.
But mostly it was Uncle Sam. Led by Chris Von Saltza, a water nymph with blonde hair, U.S. swimmers and divers were in a frothy class by themselves. In track and field Sprinter Ray Norton, the beefy U.S. shotput and discus corps and the U.S. hurdlers and jumpers dominated the show. In basketball, the Latin Americans are closing in—but not too fast. U.S. Coach Fred Schaus had the two best teams in the tournament and alternated them without mercy. American boxers, wrestlers, weight lifters and fencers were generally superior, too. Even U.S. water poloists managed to dethrone the two-time champions from the Argentine.
Considering the long track season which led to Chicago, the lack of competition for the swimmers and the fact that August is not the month for U.S. basketball, it was a rewarding show. The times were excellent, new records were set by the gross. It should be remembered that attrition among athletes is great, and the vast army which represented the U.S. at Chicago will not necessarily include the same faces a year later at Rome. But this team was a perfect example of what the nation can—and probably will—do at the XVII Olympiad. Using the Pan American Games as a measuring stick, the soft life hasn't quite got our kids yet.