Behind the Bench, Sports

Voided races, national desertion, and the mess that was the 2023 Pan American Games

From Oct. 20 to Nov. 5, Chile hosted the 2023 Pan American Games (PAG) in Santiago. The competition included a total of 33 sports, with 28 being part of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. The PAG are held every four years among athletes from North, Central, and South America in preparation for the Olympic Games, with the PAG serving as a direct qualifier for almost half of the sports held. All in all, the 2023 Pan American Games saw more than 1379 medals awarded, with the USA being the most decorated nation with 124 gold out of their 286 medals. Canada arrived at the top of the podium, earning a new record of 164 medals: 46 gold, 55 silver, and 63 bronze. However, the Games did not unfold without numerous setbacks noted by fans and administrators alike.

In Aug. 2023, the Canadian women’s national soccer team announced their withdrawal from the PAG citing scheduling issues. This decision disappointed fans, as they were eager to see the team play after their lacklustre performance and early exit in the Women’s World Cup this past July. 

Attendees might have noticed that several athletes were competing under a neutral flag, still hoping to participate. The Guatemalan delegation was unable to compete under its national flag, as the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had suspended the Guatemalan National Olympic Committee (GOC) on Oct. 15, 2022. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court had raised concerns about some provisions of the GOC and subsequently invalidated the GOC election in 2022. After having warned the GOC, the IOC effectively withdrew its recognition of the committee. This suspension prevents athletes from officially representing Guatemala and does not allow the GOC to receive  IOC funding. 100 Guatemalan athletes were still able to compete under a neutral flag, allowing them to perform and, for some of them, like Adriana Ruano, secure points toward Olympic qualifying. 

Outside of the large number of athletes competing under neutral flags, there were also a number of hiccups throughout that led the PAG to run far less smoothly than usual. To begin, the women’s 20-kilometre race walk on Oct. 20 left many people scratching their heads. The athletes’ times were voided after it was revealed that the course was three kilometres shorter than regulation. The officials only realized the mistake once Peruvian gold medallist Kimberly Garcia crossed the finish line in 1:12:46, beating the world record established by China’s Jiayu Yang by over ten minutes. Garcia supposedly realized the anomaly from the start when it was clear that her pacing did not match her splits through the race and had raised her concerns to officials. After investigation, organizers redrew the route to fix the issue for the men’s event. This mistake cost several athletes the chance to secure crucial points in an attempt to qualify for the Olympics, as the rankings are determined by finishing position times and bonuses. Although the Pan American Athletics Association (APA) took full responsibility for this mishap, the athletes remain robbed of a crucial opportunity. This event begs the question of how such a mistake could have happened at such a regulated international competition.

The Games also saw a number of political incidents facing the Cuban team, as six members of Cuba’s women’s field hockey team requested asylum in Chile, fleeing from their home country. Those players were joined by a seventh Cuban athlete competing in the 400-metre hurdles event. Earlier this year, three male rowers also defected from Cuba during a qualifying event for the PAG in late April as well as three members of the women’s hockey team, who remained in Barcelona, Spain in early May. Three male field hockey players had also left during training camp in Chile in late May. Those desertions contribute to the growing list of Cuban athletes who have decided to abandon their teams and flee their home country. By some estimates, up to 63 athletes have defected in 2023. 

As the Games drew to a close, the audience, athletes and administrators alike turned their attention to Barranquilla, Colombia, who will host the 20th edition of the Pan American Games in 2027. In the meantime, some athletes will hopefully reunite at the 2024 Summer Olympics.

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