The History of the Pan American Games
Held every four years, always one year before the Olympic Games, the Pan American Games are an Olympic-style competition for athletes from North, South, and Central America, with a total of 42 countries eligible to participate. The Pan Ams include Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming, gymnastics, and equestrian, as well as non-Olympic sports such as softball and rollerblading. The first Pan American Games were held in 1951 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Games for the Americas
The idea of a regional multi-sport games was originally initiated during the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, France, when International Olympic Committee (IOC) members from Cuba, Guatemala, and Mexico proposed that one be held for the Central America countries. Two years later, Mexico City hosted the first Central American Games. In 1932 at the Los Angeles Olympics, the Latin American delegation proposed a regional games for all the Americas. In 1940, the inaugural meeting of the Pan American Sports Congress took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was selected to host the first Pan Am Games in 1942. However, that first Games, and the second scheduled for 1946, were postponed due to World War II. Finally, on February 27th, 1951, more than 2,500 athletes from 22 countries came together to take part in 17 sports, including equestrian, in Bueno Aires.
The early years
Canada did not send any athletes to the 1951 Games in any sport. Argentina dominated the podiums at these Games, taking 154 medals, well ahead of its nearest rivals, the United States. A full slate of equestrian was held, with Chilean riders winning the team and individual gold medals in dressage and show jumping, while host Argentina swept the eventing with team gold and individual gold and silver.
Although Canadian riders did not begin to participate in the Pan Am Games until the 1959 edition in Chicago, Illinois, they have had a great deal of podium success since then. At these Pan Ams they made a strong entrance, winning the team gold in eventing with a few riders who would later be stars in the grand prix ring: Jim Elder, Norman Elder, Tom Gayford, and Brian Herbinson. Norman Elder, riding Prince Maple, also captured the individual bronze.
Gold medals were everywhere for the Canadians at the 1971 Pan Am Games in Cali, Colombia, who were at the top of the team podium in all three disciplines and clinched individual hardware in dressage (gold – Christilot Boylen, Armagnac II), eventing (silver) and jumping (bronze). Boylen continued her dressage dominance with repeats at the 1975 Pan Ams in Mexico City and in Indianapolis in 1987. In just 10 Pan Am appearances between 1959-99, Canada’s equestrians brought home 15 gold, 14 silver and 9 bronze medals.
Canada as Host
The Americas converged on Winnipeg, Manitoba, as Canada took its first turn hosting the Pan Am Games in 1967. On July 22nd, a record (at that time) 29 countries contested 23 sports in this fifth edition. HRH Prince Phillip opened the Games, which were attended by 100,000 visitors. Equestrian took place at three sites around the capital city, with Canada clinching five medals, the best being a show jumping individual gold by Jim Day riding the legendary Canadian Club.
Notably at these Pan Ams, a 17-year-old swimmer named Mark Spitz broke world records in the 100m and 200m butterfly; he went on to make history at the 1972 Olympics, where he earned seven gold medals.
Winnipeg was again chosen the host city in 1999 for the 13th edition of the Pan Ams. This time around, approximately 5,000 athletes from 42 nations took part. Called the best-run in the history of the Pan Ams until then, Canadian athletes set a record for medal performance and as many as 400 million viewers watched on TV. However, controversies abounded over positive performance-enhancing drug tests which caused forfeiture of several gold medals, including Canada’s roller hockey team. Canadian equestrians managed just three medals on home ground, once again led by an individual gold medal in show jumping ‒ this time courtesy of Ian Millar and Ivar. Popular Canadian band The Guess Who reunited to play at the closing ceremonies.
2003 and Beyond
The 2003 Pan American Games took place in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Dressage and jumping were held at the Palmarejo Equestrian Center, but as there was no eventing competition at these Pan Ams, a separate FEI-sanctioned Pan American Eventing Championship was held in Fair Hill, MD. The US swept the individual and team golds at this special eventing championship, with Canada finishing in silver-medal position and earning a spot in the Athens Olympics the following year. This marked the second time in history that the Pan Am Games did not include eventing; in 1991, eventing was held as a separate championship in Chatsworth, GA. BC’s Nick Holmes-Smith aboard Ruderpest, his grey Canadian-bred Thoroughbred, was the individual and team gold medalist along with teammates Edie Tarves/Socrates, Jamie Smart/Glendevlin, and Stuart Black/Von Perrier.
For Canadian dressage supporters in Santo Domingo, ‘Let’s hear it for the girls!’ was the catchphrase when four women (Evi Strasser/Quantum Tyme, Ashley Holzer/Gambol, Leslie Reid/Mark, and Jacqueline Brooks/Gran Gesto) claimed a team silver medal and individual gold (Reid).
The show jumping team uncharacteristically returned home empty-handed, and as a result was unable to qualify for the Olympics in 2004. They more than bounced back in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, garnering team silver and individual gold (Jill Henselwood/Special Ed) and bronze (Eric Lamaze/Hickstead). In dressage, the Canadian team challenged a strong US squad for gold, but had to settle for silver while earning a coveted Olympic team spot. Led by Tom Dvorak riding Beaumarchais, he narrowly missed the individual bronze medal by just 0.05%. The eventers also accomplished their mission of medalling (silver) and earning a team berth to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Canadian success continued at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. In eventing, Jessica Phoenix stood on the gold medal podium ‒ the first time since 1971 a Canadian had occupied that spot. Her gutsy ride on Pavarotti helped the team capture the silver medal. It was estimated that 30,000 spectators showed up for cross-country day ‒ not surprising, as tickets were the equivalent of less than two dollars. The event was held at the 2* level (downgraded from 3* in Rio), with five team members and two dropped scores, to encourage as many nations as possible to participate.
The relatively green dressage team (save for Tom Dvorak, who had been on Pan Am squads in the past) all posted personal-best scores to land them in the silver medal spot and earn a ticket to the 2012 Olympics in London. The show jumpers already had Olympic qualification in the bag, and as a result some younger, less experienced horses were sent to these Pan Ams to get some important mileage. This time the pressure was on the US to medal and earn an Olympic spot, and they did, absolutely trouncing the rest of the field to grab gold. Canada barely missed the podium and ended in fourth place.