BOEHM: Inside the 1987 Pan American Games

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Ted BoehmPardon me for reminiscing on this 25th anniversary of the 1987 Pan American Games. Others have told how the Indianapolis “sports strategy” helped regenerate downtown, grow IUPUI, and establish Indianapolis as a major league city and a convention destination.

It’s a great story, but there were some bumps along the road from Naptown to Super City, some public and some behind the scenes.

This city’s coming out party was the 1982 National Sports Festival, where the U.S. Olympic Committee gave its athletes a taste of the Olympic experience in non-Olympic years. The event was a big confidence builder and showcased the sports venues and volunteer force that positioned us to attract the many major events that have followed.

Like all multisport events, this one needed a mascot, and “Sneakers” was born. This squirrel-like character with gigantic feet made his/her/its debut at the 1981 State Fair. It took about 40 minutes in the typical Indiana August weather before the volunteer lost his lunch inside the costume. Special recognition to the volunteers who followed him and the entire original corps of volunteers who positioned us to get the Pan Am Games five years later.

The 1987 Pan Am Games are remembered as a milestone in the city’s history, but were not without their warts. On opening day minus five, a housing crunch presented by far the biggest challenge to our aspirations as a sports Mecca. It became obvious that many delegations were arriving in numbers that threatened to overflow the Olympic Village. Something had to be done fast. Michael Browning and John Adams sprang into action, and spent three days working nonstop to reassign incoming delegations to space adequate for the unanticipated overflow. Ultimately Browning arranged for the huge U.S. delegation to move to a hotel, putting the whole thing on his credit card. He truly saved the games from a potential fiasco.

On opening days minus two and one, Mark Miles and I were tied up in meetings of the Pan American Sports Organization. The usual PASO agenda was hijacked by endless debate over the Chilean delegate’s insistence on immediate attention to the problems of a former military officer on the equestrian team.

On the eve of the games, a lawsuit was filed against the colonel and his horse was subjected to a court order of attachment. Olympic delegations regard themselves as akin to diplomats not subject to the local courts, and the ensuing discussion diverted us, and everyone at PASO, from the business at hand.

When we finally made it to the opening ceremonies, our security folks were told to be ready for Vice President George H.W. Bush and his entourage to the Speedway through a specified gate. But the trail of limos arrived at a gate a quarter mile away, and the Secret Service closed the gate behind them, leaving about 5,000 ticket holders to trudge to the next gate, and leaving some fuming and unseated when the ceremonies began.

The Cuban Minister of Education was here for the Closing Ceremony to receive the Pan Am Games flag to be raised in Havana at the 1991 Games. On the last competition day, he attended the championship baseball game between the U.S. and Cuba, and because of his high profile, security was particularly tight.

About the fifth inning, with the crowd packed under the stands to wait out a typical summer thunderstorm, lightning struck the CBS trailer outside the left field wall accompanied by a deafening thunderclap. Reports of an explosion at the baseball park were corrected after a moment of panic.

Each of these incidents generated near hysteria among those who knew of them. But we all recovered, and the journey was well worth a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.•

• Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to

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