pan am fireworks
Dr. Pachi; Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Pan Am Games

By now it’s a cliché, but cynicism is something of a sport for Torontonians. The lead-up to the 2015 Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games demonstrated some truly world-class efforts. Targets for this cynicism include High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, general disorganization, lack of ticket sales, lack of effective communication, etc. 1 We complained in person and on social media and reveled in the schadenfreude of unsold tickets. Oddly, organizers didn’t seem to care too much.

I wasn’t completely lost to the zombie hoard of critics; last week I remembered that I had actually purchased tickets to an event. Before Sunday night, I had never been to a large multi-sport event, I’d only watched them on TV. I wasn’t attending anything monumental, just the men’s and women’s individual squash semi-finals, but once the stands in Hall C of the Exhibition Centre were full of legitimate squash fans the atmosphere was electric. I’ll also note that I was pretty jazzed at having arrived via free public transit with my ticket. They really should be promoting that more.

pan am squash

The iridescent court before the storm of action. Image:

The scene was a bit surreal: a massive fluorescent blue court in the middle of the cavernous convention centre, surrounded by fans on uncomfortable risers, off-brand deli sandwich and shawarma food carts, the occasional swell in music from the roller figure skating competition next door. We had entered through a nearly empty Pan Am Park, and the casual set up inside the venue (handwritten match scheduling, open practice facilities, blasé teenaged security) hadn’t inspired confidence. But when the first match began, something changed. I’m not saying I underwent some sort of spiritual awakening, I just remembered how fun it is to watch live sports with people who care.

Squash is fast, precise, and relentless. The rhythmic striking of the ball can put you into a sort of trance as you wait for one athlete to make a mistake. Unfortunately for Canada, Sam Cornett and Shawn Delierre each faced the eventual gold medal winners (Amanda Sohby of the USA and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez of Colombia) in their semi-final matches. The quality of the eventual winners was clear, but neither Canadian was totally outgunned. Such is the nature of squash, though. A perfectly placed shot can defeat any opponent, but the better the opponent, the higher the threshold for a winning shot. Cornett (ranked 33rd in the world) managed to take one set of four from the 10th ranked Sohby, but Delierre (58th) lost in three straight sets to Rodríguez, who at 4th in the world was the highest seed in the tournament.

Rodríguez was phenomenal. His nickname is “The Cannonball” but I found his play to be quick and cat-like, rather than heavy, rotund and made of iron, or whatever you’d have to play like to get that nickname. If I were to pick a nickname for him, I would choose “Jaguarundi,” which is a big cat native to Colombia that I just Googled and think sounds pretty cool. Nicknames aside, Delierre held strong, but Rodríguez was able to regularly save points that looked all but lost. He truly was remarkable. As he forced longer and longer rallies with relentless efficiency, he barely looked tired.

I don’t think anyone thought Delierre stood much of a chance after the first two sets, but we didn’t mind. Fans still cheered. We still oohed and ahhed over long rallies, tough retrievals and beautiful kill shots. A lone supporter continually yelled, “Go Canada!” but there were no overt or oppressive indications of nationalism. People were just there to enjoy themselves and witness some world-class squash. The officials sat in the stands with ticket-holders. Friends and families of the competitors were obvious and beaming. It was endearing. I had a great time.

As we left the venue, we encountered a Brazilian fan, holding a beer and draped in the Auriverde, listlessly spinning around while A Tribe Called Red played in the distance. He wasn’t being loud, he wasn’t being obnoxious, he wasn’t waving his flag, he was just having a great time. He didn’t seem the least bit upset about HOV lanes.

My friend remarked that amidst throngs of people genuinely enjoying themselves it was hard to see what all the uproar had been about. The trend is now to buck that previous cynicism, 2 perhaps because we see that blind criticism says more about the actor than the object. Everyone at the games, from athletes to support staff to spectators, seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Surely this shouldn’t preclude legitimate criticism, but perhaps Torontonians could take this opportunity to just relax and let, sigh, #Panamania wash over them. You’ll probably have way more fun that way. That mascot is still silly, though.

Top image: Pan Am fireworks on the CN Tower, 10 July 2015. Jackman Chiu, flickr/cc.

  1. My favourite targets are overly bureaucratic ticket sales, confusingly renamed venues, the word “Panamania,” and seemingly random security regulations.

  2. See this piece, and articles by Matt Elliott and Jonathan Kay.