Ah, Rio. The beaches, the Copacabana, the samba.
This month, for athletes from throughout the Western Hemisphere,
Rio de Janeiro means something else: An opportunity to improve
their chances of getting to next year's Summer Olympics.
The Pan American Games open Friday night in Maracana, one of
soccer's most hallowed venues, as Brazil seeks to enhance its image
as a host for high-profile sporting events. Although the Pan Ams no
longer attract most elite athletes, there will be some 5,500
participants from 42 countries, including 608 from the United
Many of those runners, jumpers, swimmers, gymnasts and
ballplayers will be seeking strong performances that could catapult
them toward Beijing 2008.
"It gives us an opportunity to help strengthen and grow the
sports programs and the Olympic committee in our own continental
championships," says Steve Roush, USOC chief of sport performance.
"It is a competition on a regular basis without extensive travel.
It strengthens our own programs within the Olympic movement, and
that is critical.
"And it has provided an opportunity for the emerging elite
athletes in some sports. It allows a multi-sport experience for
their athletes to participate in, and that type of experience is
critical, too. When they show up at their first multi-sport games,
there are a lot of nuances that are different, so it is a great
learning experience outside their world championships.
"The other piece is there are the Olympic qualification
opportunities that are afforded several sports within the Pan Ams
program, which is again key for us to try to go and qualify for the
Those qualifiers include sports in which the Americans excel,
such as water polo -- the U.S. women are world champs and already in
the Beijing field -- shooting, triathlon and synchronized swimming.
And some sports (field hockey, judo, table tennis) where Americans
aren't so accomplished.
In all, the United States is sending top-ranked teams or
athletes in 16 sports, including softball, water polo, gymnastics
and wrestling. Other nations entering likely Olympians in the Pan
Ams are Cuba (baseball, track and field, boxing); Canada (track and
field, field hockey, women's soccer), and Brazil (track and field,
volleyball, beach volleyball, team handball, sailing, women's
But many of the world's best are preparing elsewhere for their
world championships, particularly in track and field, or already
held their top event, such as in swimming and diving.
For Brazil, the performances on the field might not be as
significant as the staging of the games themselves. The new $200
million Joao Havelange Stadium will host soccer matches and track
and field and is a centerpiece for the country's bid for the 2014
"It's the top venue for the Pan American Games, the one which
demanded the greatest investment," Brazil sports minister Orlando
The Brazilians haven't hosted a major sporting event since the
1950 World Cup. The government is putting more than $2 billion into
these Pan Ams, with the hope that FIFA and the IOC will be
impressed enough to award their showcases to Brazil. If the games
go off with no hitches -- there have been some safety concerns
because of rampant gang violence in the poorer neighborhoods of Rio
-- Brazil almost certainly will get the nod from FIFA for the 2014
While Brazil would like to challenge the Americans and Cubans in
the medals race, it more likely will vie with Canada for a spot
behind the top two sporting nations in the hemisphere.
The hosts could score well in the marathon with Marcia Narloch
in the women's race and Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima in the men's;
the triple jump with Jadel Gregorio; sailing's Robert Scheidt,
Olympic champion in 2004 and 1996 in the Laser category; and table
tennis, where Hugo Hoyama will compete in the Pan Ams for the sixth
The U.S. team includes 84 Olympians, ranging from John McNally
(rapid fire pistol), a veteran of five Olympics and seven Pan Am
Games, to Gary Hall, Jr. (swimming) a 10-time Olympic medalist,
with five golds. A total of 183 U.S. participants from the 2003 Pan
Ams went on to make the 2004 Olympic team.
American favorites in Rio include the nearly unbeatable softball
team led by stars Cat Osterman, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza;
swimmers Gabe Woodward and Mark Gangloff; wrestlers Joe Warren and
Bill Zadick; Vic Wunderle and Butch Johnson (archery); 2005 world
champion Howard Bach (badminton); Sheila Taormina (modern
pentathlon); Paul Forester (sailing); Nia Abdullah (taekwondo), and
Cheryl Haworth (weightlifting).
And, in preparation for the World Gymnastics Championships in
September, two-time national champion Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson,
Sam Peszek and Ivana Hong.
"It means a lot. This is a huge meet," Hong says. "It's great
to go out there and you can get the experience you need. You've got
to be confident, keep working as hard as you can, but know that
this isn't it. We have to keep working until we actually get [to