Sports

The battle of the also-rans

Jane O’Hara July 23 1979
Sports

The battle of the also-rans

Jane O’Hara July 23 1979

The battle of the also-rans

Sports

It was a victory salute, a brash thrust of an arm that reached cloud-high from the chlorinated broth of El Es-

cambron to the tropical skies overhead. It was notable in that it was the only time a Canadian swimmer had cause to gesture with such temerity. And when Anne Gagnon, the 20-year-old from Beauport, Quebec, had towelled down, her single sentence told the story of the VIII Pan-Am Games: “I guess we were all a little tired of hearing The Star Spangled Banner being played.” It was a story that everyone knew by heart.

Since their start in 1951, the PanAms have been little more than a quadrennial cakewalk for the U.S., a dual meet of sorts—the Secretariats of America against the pit ponies of the Americas. It is perhaps the only international competition where the overwhelming majority actually believes that winning isn’t the only thing. Finishing second is. This year’s 15 days of Games, which opened under the tighest security since the Munich Olympics and closed after many a logistical foul-up, were no different than any others. Despite claims of pro-Latin judging and obvious anti-American sentiment, the Yanks’ awesome contingent showed that they were head and shoulders above the competition. Proving once again that they could (a) win the PanAm Games and (b) tune up for the Olympics, while (c) hardly breaking into a sweat.

Meanwhile, Canada, which spent $1.2 million carting its carded athletes to San Juan, and Cuba, whose 50-member delegation ferried to the Puerto Rican shores in a ship called Vietnam Heroico, fought for second spot in the Also-RanAm Games. That left a mere 30 other western hemispherical countries battling for the cellar. Nicaragua would have made it 31, save for the fact that putting the shot and throwing the

hammer are low on the scale of domestic priorités these days.

The Americans’ domination was no more evident than in the Pan-Am swimming, where they swept 28 of the 29 events, five on the strength of 15year-old Californian Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead’s Herculean stroking. And while Canada’s Gagnon was the surprising exception to the American’s pool rule, Edmonton’s hero, Graham Smith, was a bust. Smith, the world record holder in the 200-metre individual medley and the six-time gold medalist at last years’ Commonwealth Games, barely managed to win a silver in his specialty. It was one of the 27 medals Canada won in the drink.

On the brighter side, a trio of western women—pentathlete Diane Jones Konihowski, synchronized swimmer Helen Vanderburg and gymnast Monica Goermann—emerged from the steamy, rainplagued, $60-million Games as heroines, accounting for five of Canada’s golds. Calgary’s Vanderburg, the world champion, won the solo event and teamed with Kelly Kryczka to take the duet top medal, then helped the Cana-

dian team to a silver. Winnipeg’s Goermann, a 14-year-old stringbean, captured the individual honors in women’s gymnastics and led the Canadian team to the gold medal. Jones Konihowski, the Goldengirl of the Commonwealth Games and a bright light on the 1980 Olympics horizon, had less trouble winning her gold medal than she had claiming it at the Sixto Escobar Stadium. As living proof that you win some, you lose some, the svelte penthathlete was stranded in her bikini and forced to borrow a track suit for the medal ceremonies after thieves had robbed her of clothes, money and airline tickets earlier in the day. The meat of Canada’s gold medal haul came from the more or less anonymous legions who toil in amateur athletics: the rowers and cyclists, riflemen, weightlifters and hammer throwers.

When the Games ended Sunday, Canada had improved its medal count from previous years, but had finished third for the third time. Although many a Canadian would go home without a medal to drape around his or her neck, most would retain their memories. For some, like Quebec fencer Jacynthe Poirier, San Juan would be the site of whirlwind romance—hers, with Cuban heavyweight boxing champ Teofilo Stevenson, became a love story which caught the fancy of the international press. For others, the Games would remind them of the athletes’ village, a stifling complex without air conditioning and TVs. Canadian journalists had a more sombre memory, of their colleague, Edmonton Sun sportswriter Doug Gilbert, who was killed in an automobile accident.

Most of all, the VIII Pan-Am Games would be recalled as the competition, where finishing third was almost as good as placing second, almost as good as winning. Jane O’Hara