As Pan Am host, Brazil hopes to prove it can host world events

Updated: July 9, 2007, 11:52 AM ET
Associated Press

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 States.

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 Beijing Olympics."

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 soccer).

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 World Cup.

"It's the top venue for the Pan American Games, the one which demanded the greatest investment," Brazil sports minister Orlando Silva said.

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 World Cup.

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 time.

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 Beijing]."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press