Thousands gather for Pan Am opening ceremony

Mark Oldershaw leads the Canadian athletic delegation during the parade of nations at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games opening ceremony. (Mark Blinch/AP)

TORONTO — Weeks of nonchalance gave way to excitement and pride Friday as thousands descended on downtown Toronto for the Pan American Games opening ceremony, officially kicking off the largest international multi-sport competition ever held in Canada.

Hordes of people carrying — and often wearing — flags from more than a dozen countries packed into the Rogers Centre, temporarily renamed the Pan Am Ceremonies Venue, for the sold-out show.

The crowd of some 45,000 rose to its feet as Team Canada, led by flag-bearer and veteran paddler Mark Oldershaw, marched into the stadium, whistling and cheering in a standing ovation that lasted until the athletes themselves took their seats. The stands were peppered with Canadian flags hoisted high.

With 36 sports and some 6,100 competitors, the Games eclipse even the Olympics the country has hosted. More than 700 Canadians will compete in the event, which runs through July 26.

The thrill of seeing both her native country and her adopted one perform was almost too much to bear for Margarita Caropresi, 53, who came to Canada from Mexico 17 years ago.

"I haven’t been able to sleep for a week," said Caropresi, who brought a small Mexican flag, beaded necklaces in the country’s colours and a pendant that includes both the Canadian and Mexican flags.

"This is a big thing in Latin America," she said. "Here it’s just like another game, but not for us — it’s the Pan Am. So we celebrate this as a serious thing. It’s kind of like the home Olympics."

Robergo de Olivera, 39, came from Brazil to volunteer for the Games and said the chance to support his national team was "a dream come true."

"Maybe I’ll cry too," he said. "Because it’s emotional to see your country from outside. When you live there, you don’t feel the same, but when you go outside, you feel proud, because they represent you outside."

Hometown pride was also in full force, with the crowd a sea of red and white. Some draped themselves in the Maple Leaf, while others opted for "Canada" shirts and hats.

Alison Eacock, who arrived hours early with a large Canadian flag, said the opening ceremony — and the parade of elite competitors — was the one Pan Am event she couldn’t miss.

The ceremony kicked off with a stunt involving Olympic gold medallist Donovan Bailey in a pre-taped bit that showed members of Canada’s gold medal-winning 4×100-metre relay team from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics trotting the torch around Toronto and eventually to the top of the CN Tower. Bailey was the last to receive the flame and appeared to base-jump off the 553-metre-high structure — organizers confirmed Saturday morning the jump was actually performed by a stunt double — before parachuting onto the roof of the dome. The star sprinter then appeared live in the stadium, descending from the ceiling.

Other Canadian public figures featured in the ceremony included political activist Loly Rico; former hockey stars Mark Messier and Bobby Orr; author Yann Martel and astronaut Chris Hadfield.

The ceremony closed with retired basketball star Steve Nash lighting the Games cauldron outside at the base of the CN Tower.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, joined by Governor General David Johnston, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and other dignitaries, was among the spectators in the stadium.

The prime minister stopped by the athletes village Friday afternoon to show his support for the Canadians. Dressed in a black tracksuit with "Canada" emblazoned on the back, Harper shook hands with several athletes then led the group in a "Go Canada" cheer.

Earlier Friday, the head of the Games organizing committee said if the event goes well, it could set the stage for the city to make another Olympic bid.

"If we do a good job, we’ll have the option of having Olympics; if we don’t do a good job and if the city doesn’t respond, we will not have that option," David Peterson told a news conference.

Except for a large stadium, all of the facilities would be in place for an Olympic Games in the next 10 or 20 years, Peterson added.

"The timelines on these things are very long," he said.

While ticket sales have been sluggish — about 850,000 of 1.4 million tickets for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games had been sold as of Friday — Peterson said he expects Pan Am sales will hit 90 per cent.

He also said he’s not concerned about the griping by locals over budget and traffic congestion as "it’s always the way" for this kind of event.

"There is no games in the world that haven’t had critics and cynics leading up to the opening day — it is totally predictable," Peterson said. "What you’re seeing right now on the opening day, you’re seeing the positive buzz washing over all of that, you’re seeing it reflected in positive ticket sales, in the enthusiasm and in the energy."

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