PAN AM GAMES LEGACY: 1959 : It’s Not Exactly Peace and Harmony

Times Staff Writer

To understand at the outset how eager the United States was to stage the Pan American Games in 1959, you should know that Cleveland was offered the event first.

Cleveland chewed on the idea for a year or so. Then the city fathers decided that $5 million was too much to spend.

In the end, the only Pan Am Games ever held in the United States went to Chicago.

The file on the Pan Am Games--they have been held nine times--bulges with tales of athletes moaning and complaining about substandard housing, food, transportation and organizational foul-ups. This could never occur at American Pan Am Games, right?


At Chicago’s 1959 Pan Am Games:

--Seventeen members of the Chilean women’s basketball team were crammed into two hotel rooms because of a reservations foul-up.

--Peru’s rifle team couldn’t practice because its rifles were confiscated at the airport.


--Brazil’s soccer team was directed to a swimming pool for practice. Naturally, its swimming team was bused to a soccer field.

--It was sometimes hours before results were announced at the track and field competition, if they were announced at all.

--Mexican shooters were so upset by the lack of pistol practice facilities that they practiced shooting squirrels in the Lake Forest woods. When citizens objected, the marksmen went to Lake Michigan’s shore and began picking off sea gulls.

Of course, Chicago might have been excused. The White Sox were in a pennant race for the first time in years, and on their way to their first World Series appearance in 40 years. The way the Sox are going these days, maybe the Pan Am Games are just what they need.

The second U.S. Pan Am Games will begin this weekend in Indianapolis. Comparisons:

--The Indianapolis Games will be the biggest Pan Am event to date, including 3,900 athletes from 38 countries. In 1959, there were 2,389 athletes from 25 countries.

--In Indianapolis, venues will be strictly world class. In Chicago, they held the gymnastics competition at Navy Pier.

Chicago’s Pan Am basketball competition--Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were on the U.S. team--was held in DePaul University’s steamy little Alumni Hall. If you wanted air-conditioning, you brought your own fan.

Boxing was held in an armory, volleyball at Proviso High School in Maywood, women’s basketball at Oak Park High School, wrestling at Reavis High School in Oak Lawn, and the rowing sports on the Cal-Sag Canal.

Housing? Athletes were put up in small hotels near the University of Chicago. Latin athletes beefed about the food, and complained that Americans weren’t friendly.

Even before the start, nothing seemed to go right with the ’59 Pan Am Games.

During the torch relay run, conducted by Boy Scouts, the torch was stolen when one of the scouts took a nap in McAlister, Okla.

It was recovered two hours later, but then at Alton, Ill., the torch’s wooden base was lost when the car carrying it rolled into the Mississippi River.

Eventually, a scout finally lit the big torch at Soldier Field, and they let the games begin.

The U.S. team, as usual, dominated. Americans won 121 of 164 events in 20 sports.

Everywhere, stars competed. The U.S. men’s track and field team included Al Oerter, Charles Dumas, Wilma Rudolph and Willye White. But the track competition was poorly organized and poorly attended. Wrote then-Times Sports Editor Paul Zimmerman, who covered the Games: " . . . perhaps the worst-staged track and field event ever.”

Althea Gibson won the women’s tennis competition, Lou Brock was an outfielder on the American baseball team that won the bronze medal, and U.S. swimmer Chris Von Saltza won five gold medals.

A big name who didn’t quite make it to Chicago was Cassius Clay. He had lost in the Pan Am trials to Amos Johnson in the light-heavyweight boxing class. The next year, however, Clay won an Olympic gold medal in Rome.

Everywhere, at every venue, attendance was thin. But other things were going on in Chicago that summer.

The day after the Games’ opening ceremonies, the banner headline in the Chicago Tribune sports section read: “70,398 See Sox Whip Indians, 7-3.”

Down memory lane, with the Pan Am Games:


Finally, Pan American Games competition. For more than a decade, Western Hemisphere Olympic officials wanted to begin a quadrennial “mini-Olympic Games.”

In 1937, some American, Puerto Rican and Mexican athletes had competed in Dallas in track and field, boxing and soccer. That competition was called Pan American Games.

But the first official Pan Am Games was originally scheduled for Los Angeles in 1940 as a Coliseum boxing-track and field event. It was postponed to 1942, then transferred to Buenos Aires for 1942, then canceled because of World War II.

On Feb. 25, 1951, Argentina’s President Juan Peron opened the first Pan Am Games before 100,000 people, welcoming 2,000 athletes from 21 countries. Two days earlier, the official greeter of the 160-member U.S. team was Luis Angel Firpo, an Argentine hero who in 1923 knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring before being knocked out himself.

The U.S. men’s track team had a few big names--middle distance star Mal Whitfield, discus thrower-shotputter Jim Fuchs and pole vaulter Bob Richards. And Dr. Sammy Lee, the Korean-American diver who won a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, competed in Buenos Aires.

Some remember the 1951 Pan Am Games the way the 1936 Olympics are remembered. Dictator Peron’s favorite sport was boxing. Argentina won all eight boxing weight classes. Get the picture?

Peron and his wife, Eva, attended every boxing session, personally wishing luck to each Argentine boxer as he arrived for his bout. Americans fumed, calling it a ploy to influence the judges.

For the only time in the 10 Pan Am Games, the United States didn’t win the medal count. The Argentine team, four times the size of the U.S. team, won twice as many medals as the U.S.


The second Pan Games were slightly smaller than the first, with 1,925 athletes from 21 countries competing.

Shotputter Parry O’Brien carried the U.S. flag in festive opening ceremonies before 100,000. For U.S. flyweight boxer Sheridale Morgan of Flint, Mich., it was too festive. He fainted. Revived at the infirmary, he went on to compete in the boxing tournament.

The Mexico City Games provided a decathlon preview for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. UCLA’s Rafer Johnson, in his fifth decathlon, won the event and was being compared to Bob Mathias. In 1960, he won the event in Rome.


This one started with a stampede. When tens of thousands of fans showed up for the opening ceremonies at Pacaemu Stadium, only to find many of the gates locked. The gates were knocked down and ticket holders as well as non-ticket holders soon filled the place.

On the field, the crowd count was 2,454 athletes from 24 countries. It isn’t known if those figures allow for the Case of the Tainted Cream Puffs. Canadian and Puerto Rican athletes arrived on the same flight--and ambulances were waiting for them. The athletes claimed they had been stricken by bad cream puffs served on the plane. An airline spokesman insisted that the problem was air sickness.

Sao Paulo provided the first evidence that Cuba, four years after its revolution, had initiated a big sports push. Many were shocked when a Cuban baseball team routed the Americans, 13-1.

As usual, however, the United States dominated the medal count.

Sometimes, when athletes couldn’t win, they bit back. A then little known Argentine heavyweight boxer, Oscar Bonavena, was knocked down in the first round by American Lee Carr. Rising to his feet and spitting out his mouthpiece, the frustrated Bonavena promptly sank his teeth into Carr’s forearm, and was disqualified.


This one is a thin file, meaning few complaints, few beefs, few controversies. In short, Winnipeg might have put on the best-run, most problem-free of all Pan American Games.

A downpour during the opening ceremonies dampened spirits for everyone at the outset, and they dipped even further the following day for the Americans. Cuba defeated the U.S. in baseball again, 4-3, despite a 4-for-4 day at the plate by USC’s Steve Sogge.

Mark Spitz, the swimmer who five years later would win seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics, was a 17-year-old phenom at Winnipeg. He won four golds for a powerful U.S. swim team that also included Don Schollander and Charles Hickox.

Again, American athletes dominated, almost embarrassingly so.

The Cubans got the gold medal for bad manners. When the U.S. team rallied late in the baseball tournament and beat Cuba in the title game, 2-1, Cuban spectators booed lustily during the playing of the American national anthem.

Early in the games, Cuban officials picketed Pan Am offices, protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. On another occasion, in the press center, a stack of Cuban newspapers appeared one morning--all printed in English--denouncing U.S. actions in Vietnam and praising Cuban Premier Fidel Castro.

CALI, 1971

Almost immediately, Americans began griping. U.S. athletes liked everything about the Colombian city except the food, the facilities, the plumbing and the dysentery.

As the 3,000 athletes arrived and began crowding into the tiny rooms of the athletes’ village, U.S. track coach Alex Francis said: “My biggest problem is keeping the boys in a good frame of mind. Many of them have lost sleep. They’re grumpy and edgy. This little country has done a magnificent job . . . but when you sleep 14 to a room and the plumbing doesn’t work . . . “

The first day of competition produced another Cuban shocker. This time, it was Cuba’s basketball team that beat the U.S., 73-69. The U.S. team wasn’t a juggernaut, but did have three future NBA players, Paul Westphal, Bob McAdoo and Jim Chones.

And the Cubans continued making friends. In the village, several Cuban athletes beat up American gymnast Jim Culhane, in the mistaken belief that he had removed a Cuban flag from a pole.

Cali marked the international debut of a tall, long-armed Cuban teen-ager who would go on to become an Olympic Games legend. Teofilo Stevenson, 19, lost a decision to American Duane Bobick in Cali, but three years later pounded Bobick into a pulp in Munich and won the first of three consecutive Olympic championships.

Also on the boxing front, a memorable human drama: U.S. boxer Bobby Lee Hunter always competed with a South Carolina state policeman present. Serving a 16-year manslaughter sentence, he was on furlough from prison.

Cali was Cuba’s breakthrough event in international sports. The Cubans won 31 gold medals, second to America’s 105. It was by far the best Cuban showing at a major international sports forum.

It was also a breakthrough event for four Cubans who defected. In addition, a Cuban trainer fell, or was pushed, to his death from the roof of the Cuban headquarters.


Is this any way to treat an American in a hurry? Larry Young, in the 20,000-meter race walk, was in third place behind two Mexicans. As the walkers wound through the University of Mexico City campus, Young said, he was waylaid by students who spat upon him and held him for four minutes so that he wouldn’t catch the Mexicans.

“Yanqui Go Home!” was the theme prevailing throughout the Mexico City Games.

In the first water polo match, Americans Eric Lindroth and Jim Ferguson were beaten up by Cubans. The U.S. won the match, 3-1, but as the athletes left, walking in front of the Cuban bench, one Cuban threw his shoes at the Americans and others snarled threats.

U.S. diver Jennifer Chandler, only 16, was so unnerved by a howling, whistling crowd that judges awarded her an extra dive. That ruling touched off another frenzy.

An interesting boxing heavyweight semifinal: American Michael Dokes won a decision over Jamaican Trevor Berbick. Both went on to become pro heavyweight champions.

A United States basketball team, led by Robert Parish, Otis Birdsong and Johnny Davis, won its first major international title since the 1968 Olympics by beating Cuba in the final, 84-78.

The final count: 116 U.S. gold medals, 58 for Cuba, 18 for Canada.

SAN JUAN, 1979

This one belonged to Jose de Silva. He’s the cop who wagged his finger at U.S. basketball coach Bob Knight--Knight said de Silva poked him in the eye--and ordered him out of a practice gym. The cop claimed that Knight then hit him on the jaw. Knight said he had brushed de Silva’s cheek in a “reflex action.”

Knight, handcuffed, was taken to jail, where he was locked up for about 10 minutes. No charges were filed at the time but de Silva filed charges on his own later. After the Games, Knight, in absentia, was fined $500 and sentenced to six months.

That confrontation was the boxing highlight of the San Juan Games. Knight’s basketball team was led by Kevin McHale, Isiah Thomas and Ralph Sampson. The Americans won the gold medal, surviving an assault by Cuban Tomas Herrera, who decked Kyle Macy with one punch, breaking his jaw.

Riverside swimmer Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead, 15, was an individual standout, winning every race she entered--five gold medals. Mary T. Meagher, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Louisville, set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly, 2:09.77.

Greg Louganis, 19, upset Olympic diving champion Carlos Giron of Mexico. Another teen-ager, Carl Lewis, won the bronze medal in the triple jump.

The Cubans, who arrived and left on their boat, Heroic Vietnam, left three behind. That made seven defections in two consecutive Pan American Games.

Best quote of the San Juan Pan Am Games: Knight’s assistant, Mike Krzyzewski, claimed after the incident that de Silva had said to Knight: “Hey, man, when you’re in Puerto Rico, you do as I say.”


Caracas might not have had much in the way of electricity, paint, working toilets, or hot water, but it had the darndest drug-sniffing equipment you ever saw.

This was, pure and simple, a drug bust.

First a Chilean cyclist got caught with anabolic steroids in his system. Then, when four weightlifters were red-flagged, 13 members of the U.S. track and field team got on a plane and left.

The party was over. It was a painful lesson for many athletes, but the message seemed to have been delivered: performance-enhancing drug detection equipment had arrived. Another message: If you’re coming to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, come clean.

Paul Gonzales, the East Los Angeles light-flyweight who later won a gold medal in Los Angeles, had one stolen from him in Caracas. In what many regarded as one of the worst decisions in amateur boxing, Puerto Rico’s Rafael Ramos was given a victory many believed wasn’t his.

“I’ve been in amateur boxing 45 years and that kid (Gonzales) won every round,” said an outraged U.S. official, Rolly Schwartz.