Pan American Games starts with lavish ceremony
By Janie McCauley
Before a near-capacity crowd of 18,000 at Olympic Stadium, the Pan American Games officially kicked off yesterday with the opening ceremony, a spectacular exhibition featuring some 10,000 performers.
Local baseball heroes Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez were on hand for the ceremony involving dancers, singers and Dominican artists. Marichal, the only Dominican in the Baseball Hall of Fame, lit a small torch in the middle of the field.
Then Luis Pujols, the nephew of the San Francisco Giants coach of the same name, and dressed in a Dominican baseball uniform, swung a bat at a baseball sitting atop the mini-flame. That triggered a wire extending across the stadium to the games cauldron, which then ignited to resounding cheers.
Earlier, entertainers in colorful costumes ranging from skeletons to men in tuxedos and top hats danced through the field, typifying a Dominican carnival. Festive music symbolizing all the nations of the Western Hemisphere played through the ceremony.
"It's the best day of my life," said Elias Parra, 13, who attended with his best friend, Melbi Jil, 12. "We've never had this event in my country."
Or anything like it.
Martinez said a long flight from Dallas, where he pitched Thursday night, was worth it to be with his countrymen for the opener.
"This was a matter of pride for me," the Red Sox ace said. "How could I not do this for my country?"
He joined his countrymen in a loud, standing ovation as the Dominican athletes walked into the stadium.
The ceremony also was attended by Dominican Republic President Hipolito Mejia, Pan American Sports Organization president Mario Vasquez Rana and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who walked through the stands surrounded by a large security contingent and a small entourage.
The Caribbean nation spent $175 million and the total could reach nearly twice that amount for the 17-day sporting event. There have been complaints about the quality of facilities and the construction delays that forced laborers to work right up until yesterday's opening.
When the U.S. men's basketball team returned to the athletes village after a scrimmage, it discovered the water was not working and no showers were available.
"We're a smelly bunch," assistant coach Lorenzo Romar said.
About four miles from the sports complex, police used tear gas to break up a march by hundreds of Dominicans protesting their government's economic policies. No serious injuries were reported, though some marchers were affected by the tear gas.
The Rev. Rogelio Cruz, who helped organize the march, criticized the police response as excessive. He said the march was called to protest new austerity measures, including import taxes and spending cuts.
"The march with men, women and children wasn't against the Pan American Games, but was to call attention to the way in which impoverished areas have been neglected," Cruz said.
Police said march organizers had not obtained required permission from authorities.
After arriving in Santo Domingo, Bloomberg traveled to nearby Bani, where he laid flowers at a monument to the victims of American Airlines Flight 587.
"This monument reminds us how fragile life is," he said.
The Airbus A300-600 was headed for the Dominican Republic when it crashed after leaving Kennedy Airport on Nov. 12, 2001, killing all 260 people on board and five on the ground in Queens.
Two American athletes joined USOC officials to lead the procession behind 73-year-old flagbearer and sailing technician Carl Eichenlaub. It marked the first time a non-athlete carried the U.S. flag at the Pan Am Games or Olympics.
The island nation St. Lucia had the smallest contingent, six men.
Doubts about the quality of venues seemed to disappear among team officials as the opening approached. U.S. team chief Roland Betts, who has worked since 1999 with the Dominican government in the planning of the games, was impressed by what he saw.
"At times it has been a great struggle, but we are very excited and proud to see the venues," Betts said. "And I believe these venues are as good as or better than any that have been created for the Pan American Games."