Owen  Lloyd

The first Junior Pan American Games was labelled as an experiment and a risk by senior officials of Panam Sports, but it was a gamble that has paid off, not only for the organisation but for the Americas as a whole.

Sport has been plagued by constant cancellations and postponements in the coronavirus era, the latest victim being the Winter Universiade in Lucerne set to take place from December 11 to 21 as a result of travel restrictions enforced because of Omicron, the newest variant. News of the event's delay broke as competition reached the halfway point in Colombia.

Panam Sports President Neven Ilic admitted that staging the inaugural competition was potentially dangerous and warned against complacency and underestimating the virus. However, strict countermeasures were employed throughout the Games to ensure any COVID-19 outbreak was quelled.

This was achieved through the implementation of a bubble environment, coronavirus testing every four days for all involved with the Games, and mandatory vaccinations for over-18s. A capacity cap of 75 per cent in stadiums was also employed, although attendances rarely came close.

In addition to the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Organising Committee also had to face social unrest in the city and unprecedented weather, with damaged venues setting progress back by months.

Cali was the epicentre of riots in Colombia earlier in the year after the country's President Iván Duque Márquez lowered the tax threshold, which negatively impacted some of the nation's poorest people.

The event was originally scheduled for September 9 to 19 due to coronavirus but the organisers saw a chance and took it, not looking back once the November 25 start date was decided.

It was an overwhelming success characterised by community, togetherness and a family feel. It also proved that Games of this size, with a total of 3,648 athletes, could be staged in trying times.

Panam Sports President Neven Ilic admitted that hosting the Junior Pan American Games was a
Panam Sports President Neven Ilic admitted that hosting the Junior Pan American Games was a "big risk" at the organisation's 59th General Assembly, also in Cali ©Agencia.Xpress Media

Cali 2021 was billed as an important event for the development of athletes, especially those who are too old for youth events and not at the level to compete at senior Games. Every single one of the 220 gold medallists received automatic qualification to the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games in Chile.

Organisers are subsequently working on having that as a qualification event for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. This would offer a clear progression for athletes who tend to not receive support from their National Olympic Committees and sporting federations.

Panam Sports claims to have been in contact with numerous athletes, who have spoken of their motivation with different events on the horizon. In many countries, it is difficult to provide technical and financial help for young athletes, leaving many talented competitors behind as it is thought that sport does not offer them a reliable career for the future.

An example of this change in attitude inspired by the Games has been displayed by the Chilean Ministry of Sports. The Ministry, led by Cecilia Pérez who is also Santiago 2023 President, will give $1,000 (£749/€883) per month to junior gold medallists from Cali until Chile's Games.

Cali 2021 is expected to lead to an increase in Pan American countries historically subpar performances at the Summer Olympic Games. Excluding the United States, no country from the region has finished in the top 10 of the overall medal table since Cuba came eighth at Atlanta 1996 with nine golds.

For Ilic, "the Americas are left with a great project for the future of sport, these Games are going to change everything." The Games will leave a legacy on Valle del Cauca as 30 per cent of the Colombian medallists were natives of the hosting department.

Conversations have also begun to decide on the host for the second Junior Pan American Games with Mexico and Brazil putting forward unnamed candidates for the event set to take place in 2025.

Barranquilla is set to host the 2027 Pan American Games in Colombia ©Getty Images
Barranquilla is set to host the 2027 Pan American Games in Colombia ©Getty Images

The Junior Pan American Games is the latest event in Colombia as the country has been hit with sporting fever. It has hosted the Bolivarian Games, the Central American and Caribbean Games and the World Junior Athletics Championships all within the last five years and there is no sign of it stopping.

The 2027 Pan American Games are scheduled to take place in the northerly city of Barranquilla. Meanwhile, Cali 2021 President Baltazar Medina hopes to improve Colombia's sporting development with the infrastructure and equipment these events provide to young athletes.

Through staging such competitions, the country can cultivate its motivated youngsters who are interested in taking up sport, it is hoped. There will also undoubtedly be many who compete in those Games that experienced their first taste of international competition in Cali. The real challenge for the Organising Committee, now, however, is how to translate children inspired by the Games into future national team members.

Without established grassroots programmes in place ready to take in these encouraged kids, then a huge opportunity to capitalise on the momentum generated by the Games will have gone begging.

Cali 2021 not only inspired Colombia's youth but it acted as a marker on how to stage a successful inaugural event. The Caribbean Games is set to make its debut next year after enduring a tumultuous history.

The Games' first edition was originally scheduled to take place in July 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago, but it was cancelled just days before the Opening Ceremony due to developing concerns over the Swine Flu. This version was then intended to begin in the summer of 2021 before being pushed back by a year, set to run from June 29 to July 3 2022, because of COVID-19-related restrictions.

Pin collecting resumed as normal at the Junior Pan American Games in Cali ©ITG
Pin collecting resumed as normal at the Junior Pan American Games in Cali ©ITG

The Junior Pan American Games not only saw a sense of normality return to multi-sport competitions but also to the fandom that goes with it. T

he pin collecting craze that has surrounded the Olympic Movement since 1896 was in full swing throughout the 10-day event. You could not go a day without seeing collectors meeting in hotel lobbies to discuss and trade their items or every inch of an accreditation lanyard covered in pins.

As it was the first edition of the Games, Cali 2021 had the potential to be a hidden gem for these collectors. Specially made pins to commemorate the Games were produced and proved to be a hit among fans. At the souvenir shop on the Canchas Panamericanas, a site hosting multiple sporting venues, the best-selling items were pins featuring the Cali 2021 mascot, Pana.

When launching the idea of the Junior Pan American Games, Ilic said he wanted it to become a project that all 41 Panam Sports member countries and territories felt responsible to take under their wing and continue its tradition. And the inaugural Games suggest such hopes could be realised, even in difficult times.

Cali 2021 signified that a sense of regularity had been restored; it demonstrated the power of sport in unifying people in the face of adversity.