This article was originally published on the Ottawa Citizen website.
Judging by the lack of tickets sold for the Pan Am Games, it seems Canadians are immune to Pan Am fever.
That’s too bad, but if anyone is lying awake at night worried about empty seats, I can assure you, it’s not the athletes.
I competed for Canada at the 2003 Pan Am Games in Santo Domingo. The sprint canoe/kayak venue was in the wilds of the Dominican Republic, closer to Haiti’s Port-au-Prince than the host city of Santo Domingo. The crowd — or maybe small group of people is more accurate — numbered about 50.
I won a gold medal in singles and a bronze in doubles at that competition. My teammates on the canoe and kayak team and I had a great time, and thousands of screaming fans wouldn’t have changed that.
Canoeing is not the 100-metre dash. We rarely draw crowds, let alone big ones.
We’re often relegated to the boonies because our venue is a lake or man-made basin at least a kilometre long, which is hard to fit in the middle of a city if it doesn’t already exist. So in the 15 or so years I competed for Canada I mostly paddled in front of audiences of nervous parents.
The only exceptions are canoeing events in Hungary, where the sport is a national pastime; the Beijing Olympics, where we were told crowds were inflated by busloads of schoolchildren; and the 2009 World Championships in Dartmouth, N.S., where a passion for paddling runs through the veins of many Bluenosers. Otherwise the stands were filled with family, friends, coaches and teammates.
So what does it feel like to do something you’ve spent a decade or more obsessively perfecting in front of empty seats? Pretty much exactly like it does in front of 50,000 people, just quieter.
Sure it was exciting to paddle out to a start line in front of thousands of people, but when it came to actually racing, it was me and my boat. Crowds didn’t enter the equation. When I was paddling to a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I couldn’t hear anything in the final metres of the race. I remember being amazed at how loud it was when the race was over and I had a chance to look around.
The truth is, most non-professional athletes toil in relative obscurity, and, Olympic medal or not, any attention they do get is quickly supplanted by the latest hockey rumour. So the silence most athletes will be competing in during the next two weeks isn’t deafening, it’s normal.
That said, it’s a shame more people aren’t watching. It may not be obvious, but the Pan Am Games are a huge event. They are as close to an Olympics as most people in the GTA will ever get (until they resurrect their bid to host a Games).
For many sports the Pan Ams are an Olympic qualifier, meaning athletes will be racing for berths at next summer’s Rio Olympics.
Indeed, many of the same athletes you could be watching during the next two weeks will be in Rio next year. That makes the Pan Ams a rare chance to see next summer’s champions in the flesh. So, not only will you be able to watch Canada’s best win a bunch of medals, you’ll also be watching the next Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Clara Hughes.
I have no idea why Torontonians are willing to shell out small fortunes to watch the Leafs lose but not spend a fraction of that to watch Canadian athletes win. But they are. So be it.
From an athlete’s perspective, the Pan Ams are about competition. If events run on time, competition is fair and bathrooms are clean, the Games will be a success, empty seats or not.