Indy's Pan Am Games: 25 Years Later

For one who covered the event, memories flood back like it was yesterday. These Games don’t get much respect, but this was a big win for the city.

I recently visited the office of a former employer to retrieve some photos of the 1987 Pan American Games for our coverage in the August issue of Indianapolis Monthly. When I looked at the slides, I recognized the handwriting identifying each image—it was mine. I can remember writing those IDs, and with that realization, a slew of memories came flooding through the streams in my mind like new water through a dry riverbed. But what struck me the most wasn’t the memories—it was the fact it has been 25 years since we were there.

A quarter-century ago, my job, in my opinion, was one of the best you could have during the Games: I was the editor of USA Gymnastics magazine, the official magazine of the Indy-based United State Gymnastics Federation. The gymnastics competition was one of the Pan Am Games’ marquee events—and you could argue that it was the biggest. We, the USGF and USA athletes, were heavy on personality and television coverage. This event was a driving force, and because of its popularity, star power, and clout, we were involved in just about everything. I had an insider’s view of the planning and execution of the Pan Am Games.

Oh, and I was young, credentialed, and had an expense account—need I say more?

For the first time since the 1982 Olympic Festival, downtown Indianapolis was alive. Union Station was packed with revelers all day, every day. Our headquarters was in the recently opened Pan Am Plaza, thus I was in the middle of it all. This was the beginning of downtown Indy’s transformation into what it is today. Before this event, at times you could literally fire a cannon down Washington Street downtown after 5 p.m. and not hit anyone.

Gymnastics was king of the Games. (My apologies to the other national governing bodies.) The American men and women were clear favorites to win the competition. Kristie Phillips, Sabrina Mar, Kelly Garrison-Steves, and Melissa Marlow were the women’s stars, while the men were led by 1984 Olympic gold medalists Bart Conner and Tim Daggett. We knew we—the U.S. teams—were good. We knew we were going to sweep team and individual. We had a swagger when walking in and around our Hoosier Dome venue.

I also volunteered. I was assigned to the team tasked with constructing, and later deconstructing, the raised floor for the gymnastics venue. It was the very same floor used in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where Nadia Comaneci of Romania recorded the first-ever perfect score, and she and her coach, Bela Karolyi, became household names. We practiced its assembly in an abandoned shopping mall, a Walmart-type building, if memory serves. What I remember most is that we raced each other in rolling chairs left inside the massive area. I also remember it was very hot inside.

A USGF workmate filled in as Amigo, the Pan Am Games mascot. She was a tall woman and would always tell me how hot it was inside the costume. She was a natural Amigo—outgoing and loud but very fun in a mascot kind of way.

The USGF crew was used to running, covering, and setting up large events. Every event we produced took place in a large arena with national press and television coverage. From the standpoint of putting on an entertaining show, we were more than prepared—the gold medals in 1984 in Los Angeles made sure of that. (Does the name Mary Lou Retton ring a bell?) Cheryl Grace of the USGF was the event director and was assisted by Allison Cummings, who later married and is now known as Allison Melangton, the person hailed for leading Indianapolis through arguably the best Super Bowl in history. We even supplied the public address voice of the competition: our own announcer, Jan Claire.

The national media came in force. Many gymnastics reporters had already visited Indy for a Gymnastics Gold Medal Tour after the 1984 Olympics, so the surroundings were not completely foreign, but the city had changed. Reporters from USA Today, Sports Illustrated, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Dallas Morning News were the guys I ran with during national competitions, and now those guys were in my backyard.

The Pan Am Games were on the front page of every big daily newspaper for two weeks. Print media was very much alive in 1987. I would term the post-Watergate, pre-Internet era as the golden age of journalism in this country, bar none. Many may argue for the Yellow Journalism days of the early 1900s, but really, when you look at it, during this particular time period, journalists were on the front and leading the charge. People craved their information at the top of the morning through papers. Now, of course, news is instantaneous, and the need for newspapers has dwindled—high technology, as we now know it, didn’t exist.

The Hoosier Dome was equipped with a media relations room, naturally. It was no more than an open bar with snacks. We spent many hours there and visited regularly before going to dinner to set ourselves up for the nightlife, which was top notch. Parties were everywhere. The local bars were brimming, and Union Station was packed with people waiting. We only went to, say, St. Elmo, when it was on the dime of the USA Today or Sports Illustrated scribes; they had the “deep” credit cards.

The competitions were electric. Huge crowds embraced the venue. The fact that it was an air-conditioned 72 degrees in the Hoosier Dome didn’t hurt, but every event was sold out. Yelling and screaming (and I mean yelling and screaming) gymnasts hung out at the corners of the raised floor waiting for one of the American stars to go by for an autograph. Every time the song “La Bamba” blasted, people would get up, clap and dance spontaneously so that, by the end of the competition, we came to expect it. It became gymnastics’ version of baseball’s seventh-inning stretch.

Other than the Americans, my favorite gymnast was Cuba’s Casimiro Suarez. I first ran into him at the McDonald’s American Cup, an invitational competition that the USGF produced earlier in the year. I don’t know the man personally, but I admired him because he was an older, tall athlete—a novelty in gymnastics. When he would get going with his one-arm giant in preparation for his release moves on high bar, he was a thing of beauty. He had to slightly curl his legs at the bottom of his rotation, but when he let go for a release move or his dismount, he flew.

Here’s footage of him in action at the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela:

My favorite souvenir, which I still own, is a homemade T-shirt purchased on the street for $5 on the last day of the Games. It features a drawing of a pistol with green feathers floating around, and it reads, “Adios, Amigo.” By the end, we were flat-out done. Wiped out. It was a long haul—a two-week endurance run.

In the back of our minds, we all knew we were involved in a historical event, those 10th Pan American Games. We realized that the way we acted and planned things was going to be under a microscope for the city’s future events. We took our assignments very seriously and worked many, many long hours to accomplish what was set in front of us—which at times seemed a bit of a monumental task. But with sleeves rolled and sweat dripping off of our collective brow, we came together and pulled it off. And for that, I am proud to say I was there. Here. I had a voice. I made a difference.

I still can’t believe it has been 25 years.

This article appears as a companion piece to our “Settling the Score” story in the August 2012 issue.

Athlete photos courtesy USA Gymnastics. Photos of the author courtesy Mike Botkin and by Tony Valainis.