By Steve Keating
LIMA (Reuters) – Long known for its ancient treasures, Peru revealed a modern face on Friday as the country celebrated hosting its first Pan Am Games with a wondrous opening ceremony that paid homage to the past while looking to the future.
Precious medals rather than Inca gold will be the target for more than 6,000 athletes from 41 countries during the July 26-Aug. 11 competition, which also serves as Olympic qualifying for Tokyo in 23 sports.
An eye-popping 4,981 medals will be awarded across the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
Peru have never made an impression on the Pan Am medal table but the hosts are eager to claim their share and show they are ready to step up and join Brazil and Argentina as South America’s sporting heavyweights.
Peru’s best haul came four years ago in Toronto where they won three gold medals but in the seven previous Pan Ams, they topped the podium once.
The country’s largest sporting event has come with a $1.2 billion price tag.
Most of the funds were dedicated to the construction of permanent sports infrastructure, like the first Olympic size swimming pool since 1962, which Peru hopes could allow for more bids for elite competitions.
“Welcome everyone to the greatest show this city has ever seen,” Carlos Neuhaus, the organising committee president, told a capacity crowd at the Estadio Nacional.
“Lima 2019 has already transformed sports in Peru.
“Today Lima has become the new sports capital of the Americas.”
There is a lot riding on the next two weeks for Peru and its athletes.
The Pan Am Games may not be among sport’s most coveted events but past hosts have parlayed success into bigger things.
Rio de Janeiro used the 2007 Pan Ams as an audition for the 2016 Summer Olympics and Toronto toyed with the same idea after staging the showcase in 2015.
Lima has given no indication it wants an Olympics but a decent medal haul along with the infrastructure upgrades, which include an athletes village to be converted into affordable housing units, could do more than boost national pride.
The city’s chaotic traffic is a factor, however, and getting to some of the magnificent sporting venues might prove a medal-worthy challenge in itself.
There were few late arrivals for a striking opening ceremony, however, with the crowd erupting in a mighty roar that might have carried to Machu Picchu when sailor Stefano Peschiera led the Peru team into the stadium.
A second tier multi-sport event often compared to the Commonwealth and Asian Games, the Pan Ams will miss Olympic A-listers like American gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky.
But there will be quality spread across 39 sports. More than 100 Olympic medallists and world champions will look to make their mark less than a year out from the Tokyo Games.
The United States are again expected to dominate and bring a 643-member team boasting 19 Olympic champions and 34 Olympic medallists.
U.S. gymnastics will have an elite squad led by Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion, who many see lighting up Japan next year.
The scheduling of the ongoing swimming world championships in Gwangju has watered down the field but Nathan Adrian, an eight-time Olympic medallist is poised for an emotional comeback after battling testicular cancer.
The upcoming world athletics championships have also cut into the track and field but Jamaican sprint queens Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson, winners of the last three women’s Olympic 100 metres, will headline.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)