They come in with everything working in their favour — home-country advantage, the largest team ever assembled and one dotted with Olympians, up-and-comers as well.
They will be cheered by family and friends in the biggest event they have ever had on home soil, and the man at the front of Canada’s Pan Am Games parade has a clear goal in sight.
“It is a target for us to achieve a top-two placing,” chef de mission Curt Harnett said Tuesday. “An unprecedented moment for us.”
He is not alone in that hope, though.
In a wide-ranging discussion with the chefs of the four major players in the Pan Am Games — the United States, Brazil, Canada and Cuba — it became apparent what the expectations of these Games are.
Everyone believes Canada will do well, everyone has a reason to expect greatness from their athletes, and everyone is chasing the monolithic Americans.
“It’s going to be a very hard fight,” Brazil’s Bernard Rajzman said. “There’s no doubt that the United States will be on top of things but second position — Brazil, Cuba and Canada fighting for it? — I can see that.”
The numbers would prove him right. The Americans won almost double the medals of second-place Cuba four years ago and are far and away the all-time leaders. They have 111 Olympians and 20 Games gold medallists among their 600-plus athletes and are not going to relinquish their spot.
“You have these Olympians and Olympic champions here with a whole new generation of new athletes, young athletes that maybe haven’t been tested yet, maybe haven’t emerged yet but they get the chance to be around people who have been successful . . . in a multi-sport environment,” chef de mission Alan Ashley said. “It creates a unique opportunity to learn and test themselves so that should they make an Olympic team . . . they have this great experience.”
But there is more at stake than just topping the medal list for the major players in the Pan Am Games.
The cost in Canada has been extraordinary — $2.5 billion to make these by far the most expensive Pan Am Games ever — and it is supposed to not only create a wave of support for some relatively unknown athletes, it’s also supposed to provide infrastructure for the Summer Olympics program.
“The legacy has already started with our national teams having the chance to train in these facilities,” said Harnett, whose 720-strong team includes athletes who have won 28 Olympic medals.
“It’s a real significant opportunity for our athletes and that, for us, is our No. 1 objective . . . to see success at an unprecedented level for our athletes.”
Brazil, which finished third behind the Americans and Cubans in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011, has more at stake than just the next 16 days. As hosts of the 2016 Rio Olympics, they must use the Pan Ams as a training and proving ground for the 600-member team.
“It’s the last phase of the ascent of the athletes before the Olympic Games, so of that delegation we find here . . . is a large part of the Brazilian team that will be competing in Rio,” Rajzman said.
Cuba? Pride drives them.
“We want to maintain the second slot that we reached in 1971 in Cali, Colombia, which we haven’t lost yet,” said chef de mission Antonio Becali.