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Darren David Matthews of Barbados warms up at IG Sports Complex during day two of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games on October 5, 2010 in Delhi, India. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Darren David Matthews of Barbados warms up at IG Sports Complex during day two of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games on October 5, 2010 in Delhi, India. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Hemisphere HEROES: The 2015 Pan Am Games – by SHELDON WAITHE

Toronto gets set to host 6,000 athletes this summer at the 17th Pan American Games. That’s a lot of people taking part in 36 sporting disciplines, seeking precious metal. For the Western Hemisphere, only the Olympics are bigger. Quite handily, that tournament will also be held in Pan American territory when Rio stamps its unique cultural brand down in 2016. The Caribbean nations may have the added benefit of the Commonwealth Games but being a year closer to the Olympics and with more disciplines available, the Pan Am Games have always been the preferred stepping stone to the biggest stage of all.

These Games also represent the beginning of many great careers. However, while less mainstream sports still manage to attract the best in the hemisphere, sadly it is not so for athletics. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt will not face the starter’s pistol at the newly built CIBC Athletics Stadium, especially with the World Athletic Championships a mere three weeks later in Beijing.  Similarly, the star-laden American swim team will understandably send its best athletes to the World Aquatics Championships in Russia in the summer – this being due to the clash of dates in July with the Pan Am tournament.

 A look down the list of the Pan Am Games’ gold medallists shows names with enough pedigree to bubble on the world stage but names that are not quite the cream of the crop. With the utmost respect to the athletes, not many people will remember that Churandy Martina (2007) and Lerone Clarke (2011) were the last two winners of the Men’s 100m. However, winners have to beat what is placed before them and the Pan Am Games stand proud because of the long, undisturbed run since 2,000 athletes first gathered in Buenos Aires in 1951. It also touts itself on its sheer size, thus making it a major sporting event.

The close links of the Pan Am Games and the Olympics go beyond the Olympic rings that grace the Pan Am flag. Indeed, many disciplines in Toronto will count as qualifying events for Rio 2016, with this tournament also serving as the test bed for sports making their Olympic debut next year, such as golf, while showcasing others that would love an Olympic berth. A few that pop to mind include inline rollerblading, rugby sevens and water skiing. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seeks gender equality across all sports and medals offered, this edition in Canada will have almost achieved parity – a record 45% of the competitors will be women, the highest ever for a multi-sport event. With revolution in the air, countries have one eye cast on Rio while the other one scouts the medallists for the next big thing. Now, what can the Caribbean expect from its representatives?

The region has a proud legacy at the Pan Am Games, naturally punching above its weight when competing against nations with exponentially larger populations. Consider that our Cuban cousins stand second on the all-time medals list (with 1,932 combined to USA’s 4,183), which is an indication of their talent as well as the importance of the Games to their nation. From Guyana to the Bahamas, fans will want a similar return on investment from their athletes and governments that have begun to spend on sport.

Jamaica, along with Trinidad and Tobago, must lead the medal prospects, given the strength of their athletic programmes. The problem with the Jamaicans is guessing who will represent the nation at the Pan Am tournament, who will go to the Worlds in Beijing and who may double up and attend both. Like the Americans, the athletic bosses of the all-conquering island may decide to use Toronto to blood younger athletes but with the expectations of medals. After all, this is battle with USA, no matter the stage. As such, names like Warren Weir, Carrie Russell, Michael O’Hara, Jaheel Hyde and Odane Skeen could make the jump from proud World Junior medallists to Pan Am competitors. With consideration for the medal table, some experience will be added to the squad. Think of the 2014 Commonwealth medallists and its champions – Kemar Bailey-Cole (100m), Rasheed Dwyer (200m), Andrew Riley (110m hurdles) or Stephenie Ann McPherson (400m) – leading a clean sweep.

No matter who Jamaica sends to that Canadian track, there will be a bucket-load of gold, silver and bronze to take home and if the big boys and girls (Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Fraser-Pryce etc.) decide to stretch their legs in Canada mere weeks before the Worlds, well there’s no such thing as a sure winner but…you get the idea. Certainly, Jamaica versus USA is going to be one of the highlights of these Games. And while her countrymen hunt gold on the track, Alia Atkinson will seek that rare thing: a medal outside track and field for Jamaica. The swimmer will aim to go one better than her 200m Individual Medley silver from four years ago, with the Americans once more standing in her way.

Shane Brathwaite represents Barbados’ best hope of a track medal as he continues his development in the hurdles. But further afield, the island’s two endurance cyclists, Darren Matthews and Philip Clarke, have been putting in serious training to give themselves an outside chance of placing. The Bahamians will be strong in their traditional areas of the 4×400 relays and though they have qualified for gymnastics, athletics remains their best hope of emulating their gold haul of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Similarly, it would be a tremendous effort if St. Kitts and Nevis were to repeat their relay bronze in Mexico (2011)…but with Kim Collins refusing to retire…

Guyana has also qualified teams for badminton, squash and rugby sevens. Traditionally the Guyanese have also produced fine amateur boxers, producing three medals in the past 24 years. Levern Spencer leads St. Lucia’s hope in the high jump, with good prospects of adding to her two Commonwealth and lone Pan Am medals. That aside, the most certain gold of the track programme is Grenada’s Kirani James. He has the ability to double up the Pan Ams with the Worlds, further adding to an already extensive medals cabinet.

Like the rest of the region, Trinidad and Tobago will undoubtedly seek its precious metal in athletics but the twin isle is sending qualified teams across many of the sports available. 100m veteran, Richard Thompson, needs a big title to match his talent and if he takes the risk of going to Toronto and then Beijing, huge hopes will rest on him. The cadre of Trinbagonian sprinters like Keston Bledman, Marc Burns and Rondell Sorrillo are also hungry to maintain the fine run of individual and relay medals at major events dating back to 2001. Jehue Gordon is another name seeking a return to winning form in the 400m hurdles while curious eyes will be cast on Kelly-Ann Baptiste as she returns from a two-year ban. As the reigning Olympic javelin champion, Keshorn Walcott, should have been going into these Games as the red-hot favourite but his loss of form means that he needs a Pan Am gold to get back on the trail towards Rio.

Like Walcott, Njisane Phillip should have been using the Pan Ams cycling circuit as an important gateway to the Olympics but a serious kidney problem last year has proven difficult to recover from and he will have to work hard to medal. The other cyclists, like Quincy Alexander and Kwesi Browne, should also be grabbing medals in one of the sprint events. The games could also be a coming-of-age for Michelle-Lee Ahye as well.

Likewise, the Men’s hockey team that grabbed silver at the 2014 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games will provide a fine showing while in the pool, Dylan Carter and George Bovell III are the guys with choices to make. They’re faced with a dilemma just like the track stars – Pan Ams or Worlds? The clash is unfortunate because the prodigy and elder statesman, respectively, would love the chance to add to TT’s medal count.

The Caribbean’s results in Toronto will reflect the upward trajectory as investment meets talent and the early seedlings of sports infrastructure take root. The larger islands expect – and will get – a certain number of medals for the teams that they send while the smaller nations have begun to follow the example. The beauty is that the surface has barely been scratched. A step towards Rio and beyond?

Certainly, with the added benefit of hemispheric excellence to be celebrated as our athletes do us proud once again on the Pan Am stage.

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