Lack of stars at Pan Am Games |

Lack of stars at Pan Am Games

Tales Azzoni
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
AP Photo/Ricardo MoraesBrazil's volleyball team play against Serbia's team during the inauguration of the Maracanazinho stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Saturday, June 30, 2007. About 5,500 athletes from 42 countries across the hemisphere are expected to attend the July 13-29 Pan American games, as well as 2,000 delegation members, 3,000 journalists and 15,000 volunteers.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil ” Brazilians love to throw a party and are promising a big one for the Pan American Games.

Unfortunately, there won’t be a lot of stars to watch once the event gets under way Friday.

Rio is putting the finishing touches on the games after spending nearly $2 billion. And even though the cost is eight times more than projected, few people in Rio are complaining.

Giving a good show is crucial to boost Brazil’s chances of hosting other major international sporting events, including the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

But no matter how well Rio does as a host, it won’t overcome the fact the Pan Ams have lost some luster as a sporting competition, with only a few of the world’s top athletes attending the Olympic-style event.

Decades ago, the Pan Ams were an essential stop for Latin American athletes vying to make their Olympic teams, and the Americans and Canadians also sent their biggest stars. Now, many of the region’s best simply avoid the games, and the competition is used mostly to develop young athletes.

The last world records in the Pan Ams were set in 1979, and that dry spell is not expected to end in Rio.

“There were more world records broken in the Athens Olympics than in all the Pan Am Games combined,” said respected Brazilian sports analyst Juca Kfouri. “The Pan Ams loses to the Asian Games and other tournaments. It’s old and has reached its limit.”

More than 5,000 athletes from 42 countries are attending these Pan Ams, and the games are sure to attract heavy media attention throughout Latin America.

Elsewhere, the event is slightly more than a footnote on the sports pages, and ESPN

is broadcasting the event to the United States only in Spanish, using ESPN Deportes as its anchor station.

Not even the sport that dominates all others in Brazil, soccer, will be in the spotlight here.

The men’s event will be played with under-20 squads. But nations such as Brazil, the United States, Colombia and defending champion Argentina are likely to field under-17 or under-18 squads because their under-20 players are in Canada for the world championship.

In track and field and swimming, there are also few stars expected. The United States is bringing ‘B’ teams that still will be good enough to win most of the medals.

Skipping the tennis tournament will be the No. 1 players for most countries, including Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez, Argentina’s Guillermo Canas and the United States’ Andy Roddick. Not even three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, a Brazilian, is playing.

The highest ranked player on the men’s side is Chile’s Adrian Garcia, ranked 126th in the world. Garcia lost in qualifiers for Wimbledon and the French Open.

The United States’ top player will be Todd Paul, ranked 972nd.

Venezuela’s Milagros Sequera, 48th in the WTA rankings, will be the main athlete on the women’s side. Sequera lost to Serena Williams in the second round at the French and third round at Wimbledon.

In basketball, the United States is fielding college players, and both Brazil and Argentina will be without NBA stars Leandrinho, Nene and Manu Ginobili.

The Pan Am Games is unique in that it has six events more than the Olympics ” bowling, water skiing, indoor soccer, karate, roller skating and squash ” but one of the rowing events was canceled because a minimum of six nations were required to sign up. Only four did.

Brazil was able to attract most of its top athletes because it’s hosting the event, and will field complete teams in most competitions.

“We can’t by no means compare the level of competition in the Pan Ams with the level of competition in the Olympics,” said Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira, ranked fourth in the world in the 200-meter medley. “But the Brazilians will be here no matter what; we all just want to be part of an event like this, especially here in Rio.”

The United States is favored to finish first in the medals count, despite bringing only a few of its top athletes. Cuba is likely to come in second.

Canada and Brazil probably will compete for third, said Marcus Vinicius Freire, chief of Brazil’s delegation.

Brazilian organizers insist the games are an important event to showcase Latin American talent, and say they are trying to revive interest and raise the competitive bar.

“Rio 2007 will be a milestone in the history of the games,” said Carlos Roberto Osorio, secretary-general of Rio’s Pan American Games organizing committee. “We’ll try to raise the level of competition by using top-notch venues similar to the ones used in the Olympics.”

Osorio noted that another bonus for the athletes is the possibility of securing berths for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Twelve of the 44 sports will award spots for the 2008 Olympics.

But top athletes in most sports don’t have to use the Pan Ams to qualify for Beijing, said Ed Hula, editor of the Around the Rings news organization devoted to the Olympics.

“There’s really no reason for them to go to the Pan American Games,” he said.

As most of them clearly believe.

Associated Press Writer Peter Muello contributed to this report.

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