SPORTS: Pan Am Games was ‘coming out’ party for city

Twenty years ago, Indianapolis was preparing to take on the world.

Or at least half of it.

It was a month before the 10th Pan American Games. In my lifetime, I do not recall many times-if any-when there was such a feeling of collective effort.

This wasn’t a city rooting for a team, like the Pacers or the Colts. This was a city rooting for itself to pull off this mammoth undertaking, to show not just the country, but the world, that Indianapolis was officially shedding its sleepy image and taking its place among the can-do capitals of the world.

Yes, there already had been some successes. The 1980 Men’s Final Four had taken that event to a new level. The 1982 National Sports Festival served as a coming-out party for the amateur sports initiative. We’d built a building that lured the Colts.

But the Pan American Games was something else entirely.

We were talking about 4,500 athletes from 38 countries. When you added in media, officials, coaches and other members of team delegations, the number grew to 9,000.

There were 27 sports to administer. There were venues in Michigan City (yachting) and Camp Atterbury (the Hoosier Horse Park hosted equestrian events). Even the Circle Theatre was used … for weight lifting.

There were opening and closing ceremonies to be staged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Hoosier Dome, respectively.

There was an athletes’ village that required the transformation of Fort Benjamin Harrison.

There was a media center that had to be constructed. Today, it’s known as the American ice-skating rink in Pan Am Plaza. There were a half-dozen youth-oriented programs to be implemented, as well as arts and cultural programs.

There were enormous logistical and technical challenges to be conquered.

Perhaps most important, there were more than 30,000 volunteers to be recruited and trained.

And it all had to be done on short notice. An often-forgotten footnote is that Indianapolis was awarded the Pan Am Games only after first Chile and then Ecuador had the bid, then backed out because of political and financial troubles. Indy had less than three years to plan and execute.

I don’t want to diminish what will be required when Indianapolis does-and yes, does is the correct verb-host a Super Bowl, but it can’t be more daunting than putting on the Pan Am Games.

But we were also more eager then, driven, in part, by our long-standing insecurity, but also in the desire to no longer be a backwater. And thank goodness there were the people and the corporate support to make it happen.

The other day, I took a stroll through Pan Am Plaza. While the office tower is in fine shape, the plaza itself is deteriorating. The flames, which burned along Georgia Street for so many years after the games, were long ago extinguished. Only a few tattered flags adorn the poles. The fountain is bone dry.

The Indiana Sports Corp. owns the plaza (not the office tower or garage) along with the two ice rinks, and it’s all for sale. ISC wants out of the real estate business, which makes sense for ISC. But you wonder whether, when the plaza finds another use, the legacy of the Games will fade away.

Perhaps it already has.

Today, most know the plaza only as a place for pre-game festivities for the Colts. And that likely will change when Lucas Oil Stadium opens.

There is a plaque there that lists all the sponsors and donors associated with the games. I counted 22 official sponsors, more than 80 corporate suppliers and nearly a thousand donors. The budget ended up being around $34 million and the games broke even. Attendance for all events ended up being more than 900,000. Total visitors were estimated at more than 150,000.

Hiccups were kept to a minimum, although the Cubans provided a few interesting moments.

All in all, it was a simply remarkable effort.

And yes, it got us noticed. Here’s what U.S. News and World Report wrote before the games began.

“For years, this homey Midwestern metropolis was nowhere to be found in the American consciousness. In the early 1970s, market research showed that Indianapolis had neither a good nor bad image nationally; for most Americans, it just had no image at all. But thanks to a dazzling array of sporting events, the Hoosier capital is becoming hard to ignore these days. When 9,000 athletes, coaches, officials and media representatives from some 38 countries arrive for the Pan American Games, the former ‘cornfield with lights’ will be blinking.”

Twenty years later, it remains one of our best moments as a city.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to Benner also has a blog,

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