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PAN AM GAMES LEGACY: 1959 : It's Not Exactly Peace and Harmony

August 06, 1987|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

To understand at the outset how eager the United States was to stage the Pan American Games in 1959, you should know that Cleveland was offered the event first.

Cleveland chewed on the idea for a year or so. Then the city fathers decided that $5 million was too much to spend.

In the end, the only Pan Am Games ever held in the United States went to Chicago.

The file on the Pan Am Games--they have been held nine times--bulges with tales of athletes moaning and complaining about substandard housing, food, transportation and organizational foul-ups. This could never occur at American Pan Am Games, right?

Wrong.

At Chicago's 1959 Pan Am Games:

--Seventeen members of the Chilean women's basketball team were crammed into two hotel rooms because of a reservations foul-up.

--Peru's rifle team couldn't practice because its rifles were confiscated at the airport.

--Brazil's soccer team was directed to a swimming pool for practice. Naturally, its swimming team was bused to a soccer field.

--It was sometimes hours before results were announced at the track and field competition, if they were announced at all.

--Mexican shooters were so upset by the lack of pistol practice facilities that they practiced shooting squirrels in the Lake Forest woods. When citizens objected, the marksmen went to Lake Michigan's shore and began picking off sea gulls.

Of course, Chicago might have been excused. The White Sox were in a pennant race for the first time in years, and on their way to their first World Series appearance in 40 years. The way the Sox are going these days, maybe the Pan Am Games are just what they need.

The second U.S. Pan Am Games will begin this weekend in Indianapolis. Comparisons:

--The Indianapolis Games will be the biggest Pan Am event to date, including 3,900 athletes from 38 countries. In 1959, there were 2,389 athletes from 25 countries.

--In Indianapolis, venues will be strictly world class. In Chicago, they held the gymnastics competition at Navy Pier.

Chicago's Pan Am basketball competition--Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were on the U.S. team--was held in DePaul University's steamy little Alumni Hall. If you wanted air-conditioning, you brought your own fan.

Boxing was held in an armory, volleyball at Proviso High School in Maywood, women's basketball at Oak Park High School, wrestling at Reavis High School in Oak Lawn, and the rowing sports on the Cal-Sag Canal.

Housing? Athletes were put up in small hotels near the University of Chicago. Latin athletes beefed about the food, and complained that Americans weren't friendly.

Even before the start, nothing seemed to go right with the '59 Pan Am Games.

During the torch relay run, conducted by Boy Scouts, the torch was stolen when one of the scouts took a nap in McAlister, Okla.

It was recovered two hours later, but then at Alton, Ill., the torch's wooden base was lost when the car carrying it rolled into the Mississippi River.

Eventually, a scout finally lit the big torch at Soldier Field, and they let the games begin.

The U.S. team, as usual, dominated. Americans won 121 of 164 events in 20 sports.

Everywhere, stars competed. The U.S. men's track and field team included Al Oerter, Charles Dumas, Wilma Rudolph and Willye White. But the track competition was poorly organized and poorly attended. Wrote then-Times Sports Editor Paul Zimmerman, who covered the Games: " . . . perhaps the worst-staged track and field event ever."

Althea Gibson won the women's tennis competition, Lou Brock was an outfielder on the American baseball team that won the bronze medal, and U.S. swimmer Chris Von Saltza won five gold medals.

A big name who didn't quite make it to Chicago was Cassius Clay. He had lost in the Pan Am trials to Amos Johnson in the light-heavyweight boxing class. The next year, however, Clay won an Olympic gold medal in Rome.

Everywhere, at every venue, attendance was thin. But other things were going on in Chicago that summer.

The day after the Games' opening ceremonies, the banner headline in the Chicago Tribune sports section read: "70,398 See Sox Whip Indians, 7-3."

Down memory lane, with the Pan Am Games:

BUENOS AIRES, 1951

Finally, Pan American Games competition. For more than a decade, Western Hemisphere Olympic officials wanted to begin a quadrennial "mini-Olympic Games."

In 1937, some American, Puerto Rican and Mexican athletes had competed in Dallas in track and field, boxing and soccer. That competition was called Pan American Games.

But the first official Pan Am Games was originally scheduled for Los Angeles in 1940 as a Coliseum boxing-track and field event. It was postponed to 1942, then transferred to Buenos Aires for 1942, then canceled because of World War II.

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