THE 1987 PAN AMERICAN GAMES : Bush League Problems at Gate : Crowd Control Fiasco Mars Opening in Indianapolis

Times Sports Editor

The plan was for the 10th Pan American Games to showcase this city of mid-America by getting under way with a bang. Maybe even a razzle and a dazzle.

Walt Disney Productions was to provide an Opening Ceremony of showbiz that would make ‘em sit up and take notice all over the country and the world. Maybe even Hollywood, if that is to be considered part of the world.

There were to be flags and songs and bands and dancing girls and balloons and wonderful bright costumes and happy athletic youth waving to the crowd and jet flyovers and daytime fireworks and smiling civic leaders.


There was all of that, right there on the main straightaway of the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, scene of the annual drama known as the Indy 500 auto race. Disney clearly missed an opportunity when it did not start the proceedings with an announcer intoning: “Gentlemen, start your trumpets.”

And there was to be a Special Treat Performance (an STP, the locals said) by Vice President George Bush, who was to show up and officially open the festivities.

Which he did. And which ended up taking some of the razzle out of the dazzle and, unfortunately, putting some poop in the party.

About half an hour before the Opening Ceremony was to begin, security personnel closed off one centrally located entrance on the west side of the track. Almost immediately, this action created a human logjam that left many in the eventual sold-out crowd of nearly 80,000 squeezed and unable to move. Just about the time the show began, with great fanfare and an introduction of Bush, an estimated 5,000 people were trying to squeeze through one gate about two yards wide and get to their seats. About a dozen fainted and many others, questioned later, said they began to feel claustrophobic. All appeared to suffer from acute anger.

Once inside the gate, their plight appeared to get worse, apparently due to a shortage of event personnel who knew quickly the location of the seats listed on the tickets.

The scene became very ugly, especially when one usher, acting at the behest of the police who were trying to clear the way for a blocked-in ambulance to take out some people who had fainted or were suffering from the heat, tried to close off the gate everybody was trying to squeeze through. A man just about to get through swung at the usher (and missed) and the crowd behind him pushed forward, shouting and shaking fists. The usher relented, and the ambulance had to wait.


David Honeywell of Fort Wayne, Ind., who said that he paid $50 apiece for his tickets and stood in the crush of the crowd with his wife for 45 minutes before getting out, called it a clear case of poor event management.

“I’m very angry,” he said. “I’ve never been through anything like this before. I feel sorry for people here from foreign countries who got caught in the middle of that thing. What do you suppose they think of us now?”

Bob Coughenour, a physician from Indianapolis, who has attended many Indy 500 races, said, “The Indy personnel know how to handle this. They know where every ticket is and they keep the people moving once they get in the gate. The people working today seemed lost.”

Mary Bergerson, a senior vice president of PAX-I, the Indianapolis Pan Am Games organizing committee, conceded when questioned afterward that the arrival of Bush appeared to cause the problem.

“I saw it happening and I was right in the middle of it,” she said. “I was taking tickets as best I could and directing people to the areas and entrances where their seats were. But they were frantic to get in.”

Bergerson said she wasn’t sure what personnel PAX-I used as ushers and event crowd control workers.

Larry Conrad, co-chairman of the PAX-I Ceremonies Division, also conceded that the extra security for Bush appeared to have caused the problem and added, “As the British would say, we had a spot of bad luck at the entrances.”

Conrad also said he was “pretty certain” that everybody got to his seat by the time the athletes’ march began. That was 45 minutes after the show began, however.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

In addition to the problems at the gate, the security for Bush was evident in two other forms, one normal and one a bit extraordinary.

The normal was the dozens of secret service types around the box where Bush sat during the ceremony. Everywhere one looked, there were men in dark suits, dark glasses and little things in their ears. One sarcastic estimate put their numbers at 5% of the crowd.

The extraordinary was the appearance, an hour or so before the start of the ceremony, of dogs, sniffing their way through the press box. The presumption was that they were there to sniff out typewriter terrorism.

The show itself, costing “several million dollars,” in the words of Disney Executive Producer Dennis Despie, was the usual exercise in superlatives, with some nice moments to go with the predictable puff.

The Canadian team, always a happy group at international sports events, had the most fun with the crowd, tossing Frisbees and getting a few tossed back.

The Cubans got a warm reception, the Nicaraguans brought almost no response--either positive or negative. And the team from Bermuda showed a nice sense of humor, marching out appropriately in, you guessed it, shorts.

And a swimmer from Richardson, Tex., Paul Robinson, had a fun moment with the crowd when he marched out as part of the contingent of 677 American athletes. He put a small red, white and blue toy racing car down on the track and, via remote control, kept it rolling along right beside him.

Carrying in the flag for the United States, to the heavy applause of the sold-out crowd of 69,518, was baseball pitcher Jim Abbott of the University of Michigan. Abbott has one hand, his left, and his success story is one of the most heart-warming here, before he has even thrown his first pitch for the U.S. team.

“This is just a great honor for me,” Abbott said. “When I got here and walked through the athletes’ village, I was just in awe of all these people. And then, to have them pick me as their flag-bearer, well, I didn’t really know what to say.”

The torch was carried in to be lit by one of Indianapolis’ most famous athletic sons, Oscar Robertson. Robertson ran the entire length of the main stretch, handed the torch to gymnastics competitor Kristie Phillips, who in turn handed it to another local legend, Wilma Rudolph, a former Olympic gold medalist in the sprints.

Robertson, slightly heavier than he was in his playing days (to understate things greatly) had the best line about the whole thing when he said afterward, “Mostly, I was trying not to fall down.”

In the end, the show that Disney entitled “The Magic That Is America” left most with the impression that the desired razzle-dazzle start had been achieved, with the George Bush gate fiasco an unfortunate asterisk to the afternoon.

Indianapolis wanted a good start, and, for the most part, it got one. Also, it got a valuable lesson, perhaps one for all of sport: Leave the politicians at home.