Signs have been popping up for weeks. Actual signs, like the ones dictating new HOV rules, but little things too.
Pan Am stickers adorn cars stationed outside The Westin Harbour Castle hotel. Groups of athletes, decked out in matching outfits, roam the Distillery District. A flag cascades out a window in the athletes’ village, visible from the Don Valley Parkway.
On Friday the Pan Am Games officially go from a little-known, faraway-seeming event to a full-on spectacle. Put gripes about slower commutes, closed businesses, and empty rooms aside — these Games are a “gift,” according to organizers.
TO2015 CEO Saad Rafi touted some of the legacy projects — 10 new sport venues, the athlete’s village slated to become a new downtown neighbourhood, and the UPX — in a speech earlier this week thanking the Pan American Sports Organization.
“When you awarded us the bid, you made this transformation possible,” Rafi said.
Toronto unwraps the gift with a sold-out opening ceremony Friday night at the Rogers Centre.
“World-class cities throw world-class parties and this is a world-class party that we’re all going to benefit from,” said Olympic-gold-winning kayaker Adam van Koeverden. “I’m excited for Torontonians to be able to experience this.”
For those who didn’t manage to score tickets, the ceremony will be rebroadcast at Nathan Philips Square.
Though the opening ceremony, featuring a special performance from Cirque du Soleil, is one of the hot items, ticket sales for the Games have been so-so.
At last count 800,000 of the 1.4 million available for both the Pan and Parapans were sold. Organizers aren’t worried.
“This is absolutely normal. What happens in these games: the long build-up, you’re only dealing with the promises,” said organizing committee chair — and former premier — David Peterson. “The critics’ noises are loud until everybody buys into it and says, ‘Isn’t that fun.’ ”
In the six years since Toronto won the bid, critics have made noise about organizing committee executives’ spending scandals, the estimated $2.5 billion taxpayers have shelled out to fund the Games and delayed venues.
The sports will be spread across two weeks in July and a week in August as some 7,600 athletes, past and future Olympians, represent 41 nations.
The Bahamas will bring a gymnast to the world stage for the first time. Women’s baseball will make its multi-sport games debut. And Argentina and Canada will hope to face each other, as they have every Games since 1975, for the men’s field hockey gold.
These may be continental games, but they have international implications. All 15 Parapan sports, from wheelchair rugby to powerlifting, will serve as a qualifier for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, while 10 of the 36 Pan Am sports will have qualifiers.
Team Canada, 719 athletes strong, hopes to land a top-two overall finish on home soil.
“You certainly see the competition for that between the United States, Cuba, Brazil,” said chef de mission Curt Harnett. “For me it’s very attainable and I can see the way these athletes are prepared and ready to take on the Americas.”
On the field, teams from across the Caribbean, North and South America will clash. Off the field, the cultures will blend with food, music, and art as part of the 35-day Panamania festival.
In Toronto, Nathan Phillips Square, Exhibition Place, and the Distillery District will host concerts and celebrations, with live shows from top talent including The Roots, Flaming Lips, and Tanya Tagaq in a series of events organizers liken to hosting Nuit Blanche 35 times.
Apart from the metal detectors, Exhibition Place — known as CIBC Pan Am Park, for the Games’ duration — will feel like the CNE, with food vendors and free shows. The site is one of dozens renamed during the Games, including the Mississauga Sports Centre, more often known as the Hershey Centre, and the Canadian Tennis Centre, usually known as the Rexall Centre.
Visitors and Torontonians alike have Google on their side for the transition. The tech company has included the temporary names in a recent update to Google Maps.
Though Toronto hosts the bulk of the arts and cultural events, the sports are spread across 17 municipalities, from Welland to Oshawa and north to Minden.
That explains the more than 200 km of HOV lanes lining the region and pushing people to get creative, whether by carpooling or fake carpooling.
It’s also the reason organizers have partnered with transit agencies, including GO and the TTC, to include free rides for ticket holders on the day of their events. Calling these a “transit-first” Games, organizers are hoping most people leave the car at home.
International Olympic President Thomas Bach and his Canadian counterpart Marcel Aubut have said Toronto is now well-positioned for an Olympic bid.
In the meantime, Peterson hopes Toronto takes this chance to boast.
“We’re better at things in this city than most countries in the world. Learning to live together, respecting diversity. We’re modern. We’re developed. We’re generous of spirit. We’re efficient. We are so lucky here, to live in Toronto, to be Canadians, and let’s share it with the world. This is our time to shine, and let’s shine.”
The Pan Am Games run July 10 to 26. The Parapans follow Aug. 7 to 15.