How will Team USA fare at Pan Am Games?

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
7:21
PM ET

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Just like the Olympics, the Pan American Games come around every four years and bring together a team of talented athletes from the United States to compete in a multi-sport international event.

Unlike the Olympics, however, stars like swimming great Michael Phelps and runner Allyson Felix prefer to skip the event altogether.

"At the end of the day, I think the scheduling of these games was a little bit more challenging than normal just because it was October instead of the summer," United States Olympic Committee secretary general Scott Blackmun said Thursday, a day before the opening ceremony in rainy Guadalajara.

[+] EnlargeScott Blackmun
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesUSOC secretary general Scott Blackmun said scheduling is one of the reasons why some star U.S. athletes skip the Pan Am Games.

"Much of our team historically is comprised of collegiate athletes who are in their college seasons or otherwise in school right now," Blackmun added. "In other cases we had some scheduling challenges. The best example of that I think is the gymnastics championships in Tokyo. We had athletes competing there up until a couple of days ago. It is not safe for them to go straight from one competition to another."

The Pan American Games started in 1951 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and have twice been staged in the United States. Traditionally, the best athletes from the United States competed in order to get big-time experience. A few of the more famous Americans to win gold medals at the Pan Am Games are swimmer Mark Spitz and sprit-long jumper Carl Lewis. Both went on to record-setting glory at the Olympics.

But these days, swimming, track and field and other sports have their own world championships, and those events have become more important in the run up to the Olympics.

The Americans are still favored to finish at the top of the medals table in Guadalajara, as usual. But United States chief of sport performance Alan Ashley said that wasn't the outright goal. With about 650 athletes, more than the projected team for next year's Olympics, the Americans are in Mexico to win medals and qualifying places for the London Games.

"We haven't actually sat down and said we are going to win the medal count. But I know that if you went to the individuals that will be on the field of play, they are going to come and absolutely give it their best shot," Ashley said. "For those sports where we can still qualify (for the Olympics), we absolutely want to keep a lot of focus and effort on those."

The lack of the biggest stars doesn't mean that all top-level athletes skip the games. Steffen Peters, a three-time Olympian who was born in Germany but competes for the United States, made the trip to Guadalajara.

"Any time I can contribute to the U.S. team, I'd like to do so," Peters said. "It's always a big honor, even if it's not as big as the Olympics."

The Americans have 82 Olympians on the roster for the Pan Am Games, including gymnast Shawn Johnson and shooter Kim Rhode. Both have won four Olympic medals.

The biggest worry facing the Americans and the other 41 nations competing in 47 sports is security, but the streets of Guadalajara are being patrolled by an estimated 10,000 police and military personnel.

"We've been very pleased with the amount of security coverage that we have had in the village," USOC games director Leslie Gamez said. "We have observed over the past days as more people have come into the village, the security presence has increased. We've not had any challenges whatsoever."

Another worry has been the local meat in Mexico, which can contain the banned substance clenbuterol. But again, the Americans said they weren't worried.

"They've done an excellent job of how they've sourced, how they've tested, just to make sure that the athletes are safe," Ashley said of the local organizers. "They've really taken this quite seriously and we're quite happy with it."

And despite the absences of the country's top swimmers and track stars, Blackmun was also happy with the group of athletes that made the trip south of the border.

"We think we got a pretty good team here," Blackmun said, "but the results will speak for themselves."

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