Now that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity. This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground. So much for home court advantage.
Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games. Yup. Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments. The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process). I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth. Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible. I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.
Anyway. For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games. In no particular order.
1. OVERBLING: The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women. If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly. From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling. The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids. In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours. (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)
2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES: I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”. I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country. Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.
Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.
Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches. From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome. The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle. It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara Falls. WTF? doesn’t really cover it …
And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it. The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.
3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE: One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie. The Americans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them. Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back. But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, particularly the eight-foot kind.
4. FUGLY: Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell? Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.
Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys. Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”? I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities. Seriously, who looks good in this fabric? One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who. And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe. These girls were putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these. Hashtag fashion fugliness.
5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE: By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country. But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels. In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto. Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.
The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever. (It’s a bit of a circular argument: if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following? Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal. Ugh.) So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events. Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on. There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.
There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games. Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff. The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones. I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.
There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond. But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work. At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent. Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party. Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front. But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in. Note to the Pan Am organizers: if it ain’t broke …
6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE: How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions. If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon. (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever designed by humans. They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.) I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated. I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely. In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two? No clue there either). Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers. (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)
7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY: As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything). Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it. At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause. The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact. YouTube became the place to go …
Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website. I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us? They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.
8. ALL THE FAKENESS: These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the Caledon Equestrian Park. They were at least five feet tall. I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario. (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)
Another headscratcher: the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers. And they looked really …. fake. I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?
9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE: Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door? As in, within driving distance for many? At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming. The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm. Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)? Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood). But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad. They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.
10. KICKSTARTER?: The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019. Always wanted to go to Peru. Send money, please?
(Please note: pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant. Thank you.)