Canadians settle into Peru's Pan Am Games, with an eye to what's ahead in Tokyo

With a little less than a year to go until the opening of the next Olympics, the 477 Canadian athletes competing in Peru have two objectives: use the Pan Am Games as both a proving ground and a launching pad toward Tokyo 2020.

Country's 477 athletes want to win medals, as well as spots in next year's Olympics

David Shoemaker, Julie Payette, Marnie McBean, Gwyneth Kutz, Douglas Vandor and Tricia Smith pose in front of the Canadian flag at the athlete's village. The Canadian delegation participated in a flag-raising ceremony on Wednesday. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

LIMA, Peru — Ahead of Friday night's opening ceremony of the 2019 Pan American Games, members of the Canadian delegation gathered for a flag-raising ceremony at the athletes' village, located on the outskirts of the Peruvian capital in Villa El Salvador district.

Under an overcast sky and slight mist, Canadian athletes and officials marched into the village square. They watched as their country's flag was raised while O Canada played, marking an unofficial start to their Pan Am Games experience.

It was a warm-up ceremony for the warm-up Games.

With a little less than a year to go until the opening of the next Olympics, the 477 Canadian athletes competing in Lima have two objectives: use the Pan Am Games as both a proving ground and a launching pad toward Tokyo 2020.

Members of the Canadian delegation pose for photos with Milco - the mascot of the 2019 Pan Am games. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Douglas Vandor, Team Canada's chef de mission, said his team is ready — not just for what's in front of them in Lima, but for the Games looming on the horizon.

"You can just feel the energy already," he said. "And it's just going to build through the Games."

There are Olympic implications in Lima — 23 of the 39 sports being contested here are offering some sort of qualification for Tokyo 2020. Vandor said success in Lima will be measured by a balance between results and the experience of competing in a major, multi-sport Games.

"Everyone is here for a different reason, everyone is important, everyone has different goals and we just want to make all those goals happen," Vandor said. "Qualifying as many spots for Tokyo is going to help a lot, just with planning for the next year and putting the athletes at ease to get that out of the way.

"If we can qualify as many spots [as we can] for Tokyo, that's going to be really important."

Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) president Tricia Smith was also on hand at the flag-raising, and she said Canada's athletes, as well as the Lima 2019 organizers, are ready to go.

Members of Team Canada look on at the flag-raising ceremony. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"I'm really excited. When you're here with all the athletes and you see their faces, you know what they've been doing to prepare to get to this place," Smith said. "You know what [Peru's] been doing to prepare to get to this place and when it all comes together, it's exciting.

"Athletes seem very happy here in the village, [and] the village looks good. I haven't been to all the venues yet but our team has been up to the venues and have been very impressed, so I'm really looking forward to these Games."

Vandor, an Olympic rower who retired from the sport in 2013, said the reception the Canadians have received in Lima has been warm and welcoming, helping his athletes settle in for a tough two weeks of competition.

"The people here have been really incredible, they're very enthusiastic and they're very friendly and they really want to put on a good show," he said. "They're doing everything they can to make us really happy.

"It's the biggest event that Peru or Lima have ever hosted so it's a big deal for them and they want to do a good job."

Opening ceremony kick-starts competition

The official start to the Games is the opening ceremony, set for 7 p.m. ET on Friday.

Scott Tupper, a three-time Pan Am Games medallist in field hockey, will lead the Canadians into Lima's Estadio Nacional as the country's flag-bearer. The Vancouver native was surprised to receive the call but said he's honoured to be in the role.

"It was somewhat surprising, a little bit shocking, but ultimately just flattering and it's a really cool honour and something I'm really excited about," Tupper said.

"I'm really excited — walking out at the front end of the Canadian contingent is going to be really fun, [and] it's going to be a fun night and good for myself, but good for the [field hockey] program as well.

Vandor said Tupper was a clear-cut choice to lead the Canadians into the Games.

Canada's flag gets raised in the athlete's village. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"He's a great pick because he's a three-time Pan American medallist and he represents the passion of Canadian athletes," Vandor said. "He represents passion for his sport, he's a great ambassador for field hockey and just an all-around great guy so he was the perfect choice."

Tupper and the team may also be the perfect example of how the Pan Am Games is a stepping stone to the biggest stage in sports: the winner of the men's field hockey tournament gets an automatic berth at the Summer Games.

"The Pan American Games, for Canadian field hockey, has always been looked at as the No. 1 path ... to get to the Olympics," Tupper said. "We think we certainly have the opportunity to play in the final and the capability of winning the tournament if we play well.

"We'd like to stand on top of the podium and punch that ticket."

Medals aren't the only measure of success

The previous Pan Am Games were in Toronto in 2015, where the home team produced an eye-popping medal count of 219, including 78 gold medals — both record totals for Canada.

But Smith said the medal total won't be the baseline test for success in Lima.

"I think for athletes to be able to have their races that they want to have, and competitions they want to have, and not have anything stand in their way [will be a success for Canada]," Smith said.

"Because if you leave everything out on the field, that will be a success for us."


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