Ivar Sisniega is familiar with the process, though he’s never been on this side of it before.
Two years ago Sisniega was the director of operations for the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico; now he’s the vice president of PASO (the Pan American Sports Organization) and a part of the Coordination Commission that spent two days in Toronto earlier this week to check up on the progress the city is making with the 2015 Pan Am Games just over two years away.
“They’re ahead of Guadalajara [and] they’re ahead of Rio 2007,” Sisniega said on a telephone interview earlier this week. “Construction is going at a very robust pace here and it’s on schedule and this makes us feel that many of the facilities will be finished a year before the Games . . . I’d say they’ve been better than past organizing committees and that has me feeling very positive after this week.”
In July 2015 Toronto will play host to more than 8,000 athletes, coaches and officials from 41 different countries for both the Pan Am and the Parapan Am Games in what will be about a month’s worth of sporting competition.
And the city has plenty of work to do from getting various venues ready and ensuring the basic amenities, from accommodations in the athletes’ village to transportation plans for everyone involved, are up to the ‘Olympic standard.’
“Rio 2007 really set the bar at another level for the Pan Am Games as far as the service, what was provided,” said Sisniega, who's a former Olympic athlete himself. He competed in modern pentathlon at the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Summer Games. “It was almost like an Olympic Games and that set the expectations that although it’s a smaller scale we expect the Pan Am Games to be at an Olympic caliber.”
As for the competition itself, Sisneiga is hopeful that at least 15 events – an increase from the 12 Guadalajara had – will serve as the Olympic qualifiers for the 2016 Games in Rio meaning Torontonians will have the chance to watch past Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalists compete in person.
There in lies arguably the biggest challenge the organizing committee faces leading up to Toronto 2015. As Sean Fitz-Gerald pointed out in a story for the National Post, Guadalajara staged its Games in October, right after the track and field World Championships meaning many of the top track athletes including Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake passed on the 2011 Pan Am Games. In a city like Toronto it may be tough to attract major fan attention to the Games if big-name Olympians aren’t going to attend and compete. “This could mean trying to convince FIBA – basketball’s governing body – to make the Pan Am Games an Olympic qualifying tournament, for example, to compel the participation of recognizable NBA players,” Fitz-Gerald argued in his piece.
Believe it or not it’s actually the first time since 1930, when Hamilton hosted the Commonwealth Games, that Toronto will be a part of putting on a multi-sport competition of this magnitude and Sisniega believes that it’s not only an opportunity for Torontonians to showcase their city in a way they’ve never been able to do before, but it’s also a unique chance to raise the profile of the Pan Am Games.
“Certainly [having] a top U.S. city or a top Canadian city [host] helps bring up that profile,” Sisniega said. “The last time we were in the U.S. we were in Indianapolis in 1987 . . . So certainly coming to Toronto would be something that is helpful to the Games and in this case coming to the most important city economically and the most populated city in Canada is certainly a step in the right direction for the Pan Am Games.”
Could a well-run Pan Am Games in Toronto be the key for the city in terms of winning an Olympic bid in the future?
Sisneiga pointed to Rio as a perfect example of just that.
“Rio 2007 Pan Am Games, 2016 Olympic Games so certainly it prepares the human resources,” he said. "Not all the facilities that they’re preparing for the Pan Am Games [in Toronto] will be at Olympic level, but if you can have an almost perfect Pan Am Games it certainly can open the door for the Olympic Games as long as the financial backing is there.”