Pan Am Games will serve as Olympic qualifier
Nine months before the curtain goes up on the Summer Olympics, Canada's men's field hockey team will be playing its heart out on a pitch in Mexico just for a chance to compete on sport's grandest stage.
The Pan American Games, which open Friday, are direct Olympic qualifiers for 12 different sports.
For field hockey, it's simple. Win in Mexico, go to London.
"It's massive for us," said field hockey veteran Ken Pereira, who at 38 is part of a wave of long-serving Canadian athletes who could retire after London.
Women's soccer captain Christine Sinclair will carry Canada's flag into the opening ceremonies Friday at Omnilife Stadium, leading a team of 493 athletes — Canada's second-largest Pan Am team after the 1999 Winnipeg Games.
The Guadalajara Games are a direct Olympic qualifier, not only for field hockey, but also water polo, diving, synchronized swimming, triathlon, dressage, handball, modern pentathlon, shooting, tennis, table tennis and canoe/kayak.
Pereira and his field hockey team booked its ticket to the 2008 Beijing Games in spectacular fashion at the Pan Ams four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, beating Argentina in a shootout following overtime.
"It's so tough for Canada to qualify for the Olympics, it's always a battle to get there," said Pereira, who's predicting Argentina to provide stiff opposition again in Mexico. "It's always really fun when you're at these tournaments and then such a big relief when you actually qualify.
"It was crazy. Quite a bit of celebrating. And not just that one night," he added with a laugh.
Canada's women's water polo team failed to qualify for Beijing, losing gold — and a Games berth — to rival U.S. four years ago in Rio.
The Canadians took no chances this time around. At the recent world championships, Canada didn't utilize the same game strategy it will play in Mexico, for fear of divulging tactical secrets to the U.S.
While it probably cost the Canadians in their performance at the world tournament — Canada was ousted by China in the quarter-finals — Canadian coach Pat Oaten said the move was a "no-brainer" for his team.
"Obviously we would have liked to have done well [at the world championships], but the reality is, you win the world championships and you don't qualify for the Olympics, no one remembers the world championship," Oaten said.
"I'm sure [the U.S. is] doing the exact same thing. I'm sure the U.S. is going to throw something at us, and we're going to throw something at them.
The Pan Am Games have been held every four years since 1951 in Buenos Aires. They're held in the year prior to the Olympics, and whether it's directly qualifying for the Summer Games or simply fine-tuning, London looms large over these Pan Ams.
"Our major objective is to make sure all our Olympic qualifier teams get the qualification," said Jacques Cardyn, Canada's chef de mission. "It's win and go to the Games, or they don't win and they don't go to the Games. So it's major for us, we're putting everything in place so the ones who are competing for a berth in the Games, they can make it to the Games."
Cardyn's assistant chef Curt Harnett calls the Pan Ams "critically valuable" to the amateur schedule, and not just for the sports battling for Olympic berths.
"There are some sports that are not Olympic sports so this is their Olympic Games, it's a critical opportunity to go out there and perform at an international level, and carry Canada's flag with pride," said Harnett, a three-time Olympic cycling medallist. "Plus, they're critical in the athlete development life cycle. It's key for athletes who have aspirations to go to the Olympic Games to have experience like something at the Pan Am Games."
The Pan Am Games represent the second-largest multi-sport event after the Summer Olympics. Some 6,000 athletes from 42 countries in the Americas will compete in 36 different sports, including all the Olympic sports.
Among the non-Olympic sports are baseball and softball, squash, and water-skiing. There are also a couple of sports unique to the Pan Ams such as roller-skating — both speed and artistic — and Basque pelota.
Canada traditionally finishes in the top three at the Games, taking third spot in 2007 in total medals with 138 behind the U.S. and Brazil. Swimmers led the way, bringing home 18 medals — one gold, five silver, 12 bronze — while Canadians won 12 medals in track and field — six gold, four silver, two bronze.
For Canadian women's soccer coach John Herdman, these Games won't be so much about medals as an opportunity to play crucial games and experiment with his roster prior to the team's Olympic qualifying tournament in January.
Plus, Herdman's a big believer in the multi-sport experience.
"Being with all the other athletes and being part of the bigger team, I think it's good preparation for your Olympic Games, you get a feel of team Canada," Herdman said. "I think that's the exciting part for any player going into the Pan Ams, you get to be part of something bigger than football."
Guadalajara is Mexico's second largest city approaching 4.5 million people in the metropolitan area. It's known for tequila and mariachi — a genre of music characterized by strolling, serenading musicians, dressed in silver-studded charro suits and wide-brimmed hats.
Guadalajara was also the only official bid for the 2011 Games.
Organizers have been in a race to finish venue construction, however, the hold-up partly due to recent heavy rains. The 8,000-seat track and field stadium has been the biggest concern, with workers expected to be applying finishing touches almost until the gun goes off to start the first race.
"We haven't heard that the stadium isn't going to be finished, but we do know that there's lot of frantic work being done at the last minute," said Athletics Canada's head coach Alex Gardiner. "But it's like that for many meets around the world, organizers are literally painting until a day or two before the opening ceremonies."
Hurricane Jova has added some uncertainty going into the Games. Guadalajara is inland but Puerta Vallarta, host to such sports as sailing and beach volleyball, has been bracing for bad weather.
Cardyn said the best way to prepare for any multi-sport Games is to be ready for anything, and so it's not surprising, considering Cardyn is a former Olympic fencer, that the Canadian team's catch phrase for Guadalajara is "En garde!"
"It's a phrase they use just before they go into battle," Harnett said. "So it's our theme going into Guadalajara. Be ready, be prepared. And part of the preparation is expecting the unexpected."
The other big concern about Guadalajara is security in a country racked by drug violence. More than 35,000 people have been killed since 2006. Games organizers have pledged to make security a main priority, and say they are deploying 10,000 municipal, state and federal police at a cost of US$10 million.
Toronto will host the 2015 Games, and Toronto's organizing committee will have 25 people in Mexico to study all aspects of operation of the multi-sport event.
Winnipeg hosted the Games in both 1967 and '99.