While the rhythmic undulations of the Cirque du Soleil dancers were incredible, the true stars of the 2015 Pan Am Games opening ceremony were the athletes themselves.
The high-concept performance, created by Cirque, told the story of Canada, the land and its people, celebrating the diversity of the region and of the games themselves. To the beat of pulsating techno and the flashing lights of pyrotechnics, Cirque performers (some of whom are past Pan Am athletes, according to TO2015 CEO Saad Rafi) put on a pretty stunning display of their own athletic prowess.
Introducing the Pan Am torch, the gold-medal winning relay team from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta took part in a relay race with the torch on the streets and sights of Toronto.
A video displayed on the screen inside the venue showed footage of those runners passing the torch all the way to the top of the CN Tower, where Bruny Surin ran along the EdgeWalk before passing to sprinter Donavan Bailey, who appeared to parachute and then descend with the torch onto the stage before passing it on to the younger generation — acclaimed 15-year-old diver Faith Zacharias.
As was expected, the program was a who’s who of Canadian celebrities, both athletes like Rick Hansen and Bobby Orr and cultural figures like Life of Pi’s Yann Martel and astronaut Chris Hadfield.
The night took a solemn turn, in memory of Mario Vazquez Rana, the former Pan Am president who died earlier this year.
The festivities ended much as it had begun — with a fantastic relay of past Canadian superstars. Marita Payne-Wiggins, a member of the silver-medal winning women’s relay team from the 1984 Olympics, passed the torch onto her son, NBA basketball player Andrew Wiggins.
It was a touching moment, made even more poetic when Steve Nash, famed veteran basketball superstar took it up and lit the symbolic cauldron.
And while Canada might not win as many gold medals as sports fans would like, the country was a tour de force in terms of roll call. In total, 719 Canadians are competing in the games, alongside more than 7,000 athletes from 41 nations. Each country was welcomed into the arena, accompanied by its own unique soundtrack and a team of tireless dancing volunteers. Bearing the flag for Canada was Mark Oldershaw, who took bronze in the 2012 London Olympics.
The sold-out opening ceremony drew a crowd of about 45,000 spectators to the Rogers Centre, which has been rechristened the Pan Am Ceremonies Venue for the games.
Although some Torontonians are cursing the games and the chaos they’ve brought to the city’s already legendary traffic congestion, the ticket holders to tonight’s event said it was all worth it.
“It’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to the Olympics,” says Melissa Naresh, who is attending the ceremony with her family. Her parents arrived in Toronto from Guyana 30 years ago, and tonight, they’re thrilled to cheer for both countries.
“We’re supporting everybody,” says Naresh’s father, Joe. “But Canada first.”