Winnipeg is a conservative town. It sits out there among all that fine prairie wheat ( Manitoba No. 1 Hard) hundreds of miles from anything its size, right in the middle of the wide, flat underbelly of Canada. It keeps a conservative grip on itself. People from Winnipeg pour vinegar on their french fries to cut the grease, and at 6:30 p.m. they close the beer parlors for an hour so Father will be sure to make it home for dinner.
"Try to blow a hundred bucks in an evening on the town in Winnipeg," said a man from Montreal. "It's impossible." A locally published booklet describes the city as having no race problems, no French question and a population of extraordinary charity. If these seem idle boasts, consider what happened last week when there was a call for help to run the Pan-American Games. With nothing to hate, 5,000 Winnipeggers, as they are called, volunteered. Mothers who scarcely knew their way past the supermarket were driving official cars. Prominent judges were scoring soccer matches and tending flags. Unsophisticated in the ways of modern labor, striking carpenters came back to install seats at the new swimming pool.
This is the year of Canada's 100th birthday, and every city in every province is asked to have a project to commemorate the centennial. There is one western town that, for its project, built a new sewer system. When the sewer was finished everybody brought his outdoor privy down to the center of town for a great bonfire.
Winnipeggers had no need to fool around with that sort of improvement, for Winnipeg is already modern enough. Its avenues are wider and its neighborhoods cleaner than most American cities of its size. Its buildings are sound, if architecturally uninspired, done low to the ground as though scrunched down for protection against the winter winds. Jim Coleman, a Canadian columnist, says Winnipeg is nine months winter and three months bad skating.
But it is not yet winter in Winnipeg. Not until next month or next Friday or so. The city that less than a century ago was a fur-trading post known as Fort Garry was alive and throbbing last week with its birthday offering for Canada, the fifth Pan-American Games, and extraordinary charity was at work all over town. For example, a visitor from the U.S. was called into conversation with a man at the next table in Pierre's restaurant on Portage Avenue. The man said he was an automobile dealer. Before they were finished he had invited the visitor to pick a car to use while he was in town, free of charge.
Winnipeggers have ballet and symphony and repertory theater—they think of themselves as the cultural midriff of Canada—and the public library has a marquee just like a movie house. But the masses generally settle for U.S. television and movies, trips to the Assiniboine Zoo and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. They have never had anything to compare with the entertainment scope of the Pan-Am Games. According to James Daly, the executive director, he secured the games for Winnipeg by showing movies of the crowds at exhibition baseball (the St. Louis Cardinals came one year) and bingo games.
Every available facility in Winnipeg was put into use for the 3,000 competing athletes from 26 countries, and Winnipeggers, hungry for action, swarmed in. Even for preliminaries they jammed the beautiful new $2.7 million pool, the largest swimming facility in Canada. They watched with awe as American boys too young to shave and American girls too young to date set records, beginning for the U.S. what is sure to be the most extravagant accumulation of medals in the 16-year history of the games. And they watched with foot-stomping patriotic delectation as their own Elaine Tanner, herself just 16, broke two world records.
They jammed the St. James Arena, too, for the gymnastic competition, applauding as if they knew what it was all about in a sport about as easy to keep score on as Russian ballet. In the end they forced a move of the gymnastic competition to the larger Winnipeg Arena where, on the final night, there was a standing-room-only crowd of 10,000, as the U.S.'s Mark Cohn, a magna cum laude graduate of Temple University, won the side horse, and Linda Jo Metheny, a 19-year-old University of Illinois physical-education major, won four gold medals in her shocking fuchsia tights. A case could be made that the popularity of gymnastics was attributable primarily to the symmetry of the gymnasts and the uniforms they wore, which were nothing much. A case could even be made that women's gymnastics was the closest thing to a girly show old Winnipeg had ever offered. But that would reflect on a vastly improved American team that won 11 gold medals, five by the men. It would reflect, too, upon Canada's beautiful Susan McDonnell, who bawled her pretty eyes out after winning her event, the uneven bars.
The games were barely started before officials hastened to revise projected estimates of total receipts. The original pessimistic figure of $400,000 was doubled. Soon Mayor Stephen Juba was talking about getting a committee together to put in a bid for the 1976 Olympic Games. A nice enthusiasm, that, but not a practical one for a town of only half a million people and a spotty economy (the wheat crop this summer has been cut sharply by drought).
It is, in the end, a matter of knowing just how far to go, like the girl who showed up at the Canada- Cuba baseball game on the fifth day of the games wearing a flowery bikini under a transparent shirt. Somewhat self-conscious, she thought it necessary to explain to an admiring U.S. athlete that ordinarily she would not be so bold but "everything has changed so much in Winnipeg since the games started." The boy suggested they continue the discussion at dinner, seeing as how he wasn't competing until next week. The girl asked if he was Jewish. There is a large Jewish population in Winnipeg. No, he said, he was not Jewish. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I'm Jewish and I'm afraid I haven't become that liberal."