Toronto greets the Americas
Toronto greets the Americas
Weeks of nonchalance gave way to excitement and pride Friday as thousands descended on downtown Toronto for the Pan American Games opening ceremony, officially kicking off the largest international multi-sport competition ever held in Canada.
Hordes of people carrying – and often wearing – flags from more than a dozen countries packed into the Rogers Centre, temporarily renamed the Pan Am Ceremonies Venue, for the sold-out show.
The crowd of some 45,000 rose to its feet as Team Canada, led by flag-bearer and veteran paddler Mark Oldershaw, marched into the stadium, whistling and cheering in a standing ovation that lasted until the athletes themselves took their seats. The stands were peppered with Canadian flags hoisted high.
More than 700 Canadians will compete at the Games, which run through July 26.
The thrill of seeing both her native country and her adopted one perform was almost too much to bear for Margarita Caropresi, 53, who came to Canada from Mexico 17 years ago.
“I haven’t been able to sleep for a week,” said Caropresi, who brought a small Mexican flag, beaded necklaces in the country’s colours and a pendant that includes both the Canadian and Mexican flags.
“This is a big thing in Latin America,” she said. “Here it’s just like another game, but not for us – it’s the Pan Am. So we celebrate this as a serious thing. It’s kind of like the home Olympics.”
Robergo de Olivera, 39, came from Brazil to volunteer for the Games and said the chance to support his national team was “a dream come true.”
“Maybe I’ll cry too,” he said. “Because it’s emotional to see your country from outside. When you live there, you don’t feel the same, but when you go outside, you feel proud, because they represent you outside.”
Hometown pride was also in full force, with the crowd a sea of red and white. Some draped themselves in the Maple Leaf, while others opted for “Canada” shirts and hats.
Alison Eacock, who arrived hours early with a large Canadian flag, said the opening ceremony – and the parade of elite competitors – was the one Pan Am event she couldn’t miss.
The ceremony kicked off with a gravity-daring stunt from Olympic gold medallist Donovan Bailey in a pre-taped bit that depicted members of Canada’s gold medal-winning 1996 4×100-metre relay team trotting the torch around Toronto and eventually to the top of the CN Tower. Bailey was the last to receive the flame and promptly base-jumped off the 553-metre-high structure, parachuting onto the roof of the dome. The star sprinter then appeared live in the stadium, descending from the ceiling.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, joined by Governor General David Johnston, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and other dignitaries, was among the spectators in the stadium.
More than two hours later, the cheering raged on as NBA phenom Andrew Wiggins handed the torch to basketball legend Steve Nash, who dashed out toward CN Tower Plaza to ignite the Official Cauldron. And quicker than you can say “HOV lanes” or “is it over yet,” the Games had rumbled to life.
In between Bailey and Nash were moments both oddly affecting and effectively odd.
There was a “PowWow Carnival” featuring 183 dancers in a nod to Toronto’s diversity (think a hip-hop party at the United Nations). There was Chilly Gonzales performing the national anthem in what might have been a bathrobe and slippers swiped from a partner hotel.
There was the Parade of Nations — Barbados! El Salvador! Cuba! — and the loudest roar of the night. This happened when our Canadian athletes strutted across the concrete floor, waving flags and smiling sweetly in their HBC-designed uniforms.
In the crowd, even Stephen Harper looked pumped.
From my vantage point, at least, the back of his head looked pumped.
In a performance titled, “Forest Borealis,” featuring 150 children, animals from the Canadiana taxidermy — bears! caribou! owl! woodpeckers! — the Rogers Centre darkened, save for the glow of twinkling candles and roving spotlights. With the haunting, moody music, it was hard not to get swept up in the jangling ephemera, to not feel moved by the sheer spectacle of it all.
And dare I say it, to not feel a bit of pride as Toronto tiptoed atop the world stage, or at least the elevated platform belonging to the Americas. Whether these good feelings survive until Saturday morning is anybody’s guess.
But on Friday, however fleeting, those feelings moved with a sense of purpose from the stage, through the stands and out via live television. This was a sense of occasion set to music.
And so five years, eight months and five days after Toronto was awarded the games — it just felt longer — the Pan Am Games are finally here. There is no escape, not unless you actually plan to escape the city. The Games were given at solid kick-start on Friday night, as Cirque du Soleil did everything in their circus-stunt powers to transform a half-decade of bellyaching into two and a half hours of chest thumping.
Of course, granting Cirque du Soleil more than 18 months to conceive and execute a single show successfully is like giving Donald Trump a week to say something stupid: it’s virtually guaranteed.
So outside the Rogers Centre, rechristened for the event as the Pan Am Ceremonies Venue, there was a celebratory spirit in the muggy air. The same seemed to be happening at Nathan Phillips Square, where hundreds gathered to watch the CBC live broadcast of the opening ceremony on giant screens.
As the night twisted on, this is also what became clear: for the next two weeks, this will be a city divided. Some will bask in this multi-sport extravaganza and see it as an once-in-a-lifetime event. Others will pointedly ignore the fuss and maintain this always a disaster in the making.