In one final, spectacular pitch, Pan Am Games organizers tried to convince the largely apathetic residents of this year's host city to care about this summer's multisport event with two powerful tools at its Friday night opening ceremonies: nostalgia and whimsy.
Without the celebrity amateur athletes the Olympic Games bring out, the Pan Am organizing committee attempted to spark excitement by trotting out athletes Canadians had celebrated nearly two decades earlier, and showcasing Cirque du Soleil's fanciful re-imagination of the sports that will be hosted in the region over the next two weeks.
After months of lacklustre ticket sales and a public that seems to have taken more interest in Pan Am's impact on the daily commute rather than the sports, organizers were betting the sold-out opening ceremonies at the Rogers Centre would give the Games the shot in the arm they so badly needed. The deafening cheers as the crowd welcomed Team Canada, decked-out in Hudson's Bay-designed red and grey track suits, into the venue during the Parade of Nations suggested some residents had finally caught Pan Am fever.
While it was an unknown, teenage diver Faith Zacharias who ultimately set the torch at the front of the stage for the duration of the show, the torch was brought into the stadium by a quintet of former Olympic gold-medal-winning sprinters who were household names in the nineties: Donovan Bailey, Glenroy Gilbert, Robert Esmie, Carlton Chambers and Bruny Surin.
Rounding out the end of the outdoor torch relay, they jogged through Toronto's west end to the Rogers Centre, set off a spectacular fireworks display at the base of the CN Tower and ran 356 metres above the ground along the CN Tower's Edge Walk platform.
Mr. Bailey, who in 1996 won two gold medals at the Olympics in Atlanta, was shown in a video jumping from the top of the CN Tower to the top of the Rogers Centre. Mr. Bailey then descended from the ceiling to the stage of the Rogers Centre, holding the flaming Pan Am torch – an act reminiscent of London's 2012 opening ceremonies in which actor Daniel Craig as James Bond entered the Olympic Stadium in a similar fashion. As the former Olympians' names were announced, the crowd cheered in recognition, some rising to their feet.
Experts have blamed the lack of star power among athletes competing in the Pan Am Games in part for slow ticket sales. Many of the 41 participating countries didn't confirm who would be representing them in Toronto until the last few weeks and many who made names for themselves at the London 2012 Olympics are not attending. While Pan Am has tried to turn Markham, Ont., sprinter Andre De Grasse into a hero worthy of a cereal-box campaign in recent weeks, throughout most of the marketing effort, organizers have leaned heavily on former Olympians such as Mr. Bailey and Perdita Felicien, as well as Venezuelan basketball player Greivis Vasquez, recently traded by the Toronto Raptors to the Milwaukee Bucks, as ambassadors for the Games.
A long Parade of Nations in which the more than 6,000 athletes filed into the venue, was followed by the night's main event: a series of acts by Cirque du Soleil that cleverly interpreted Pan Am events such as gymnastics and BMX as amped-up, and even death-defying, versions of themselves.
Eclectic musician Chilly Gonzales and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed a version of the national anthem that was unconventional only because it was sung not by Serena Ryder, who recorded the official song of Toronto 2015 Together We Are One, but by Véronic DiCaire, a Franco-Ontarian singer best known for her impersonations of Cher and Tina Turner.
The ceremonies also included a performance by indigenous dancers representing the four ancestral Nations of the Greater Golden Horseshoe region – the host of the Games – welcoming the Eagle, in the form of a dancer, the messenger of the Games. To the pounding electro beats of DJ Shub, they joined a group of 183 dancers from everywhere from Brazil to Ukraine who twirled, thrust and leapt across the stage.