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The Pan American Games Begin Next Week. What Are They And Why Does It Matter?

By Todd Kortemeier | July 18, 2019, 4:19 p.m. (ET)

Nathan Adrian swims at a training session on July 13, 2019 in Singapore. 


Do you feel like you can’t wait one more year for the next Olympic Games? Well, you’re in luck. Starting next week, many of your favorite athletes are in action for the Pan American Games Lima 2019, taking place July 26-Aug. 11.

First held in 1937, and every four years since 1951, the Pan American Games are a summer sports competition for countries in North, South and Central America. In 2015 in Toronto, more than 6,000 athletes from 41 countries competed in 36 sports. More like 6,700 athletes are expected to compete in Peru.

The Games are organized by PanamSports (formerly the Pan American Sports Organization or PASO), which is affiliated with the International Olympic Committee and operates in accordance to the Olympic Charter. But the Pan American Games are more than just a smaller Olympic Games. They’re a place to see future Olympic stars, future Olympic sports, new and different sports never before seen at the Olympics, and more. Here are just a few of the reasons you should tune in.

Olympic Spots Are On The Line
Many athletes choose to participate in the Pan American Games. But for some, it might be their only or best way to qualify for the Olympic Games. Olympic qualifying spots are up for grabs in 13 sports in Lima.

Those sports are: archery, diving, equestrian, field hockey, karate, modern pentathlon, sailing, shooting, surfing, synchronized swimming, team handball, tennis, and water polo. Athletes can also work toward their ability to qualify in badminton, swimming, track and field, and weightlifting.

While some sports qualify Olympic quotas for a given country, others allow athletes to qualify by name. In 2015, pentathlete Nathan Schrimsher became the first official member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team by earning his qualifying spot in Toronto. Table tennis player Yue Wu joined him there as the second athlete to make the Olympic team. This year, athletes in modern pentathlon will eye individual qualification, while many others will vie for team and individual quota spots for the United States.

Olympians And Future Olympians Will Be There
In Toronto, Team USA took home 265 medals, topping the medal table for the 16th straight time at the Pan American Games. Rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng was the top performer overall, winning five gold medals in sweeping the individual rhythmic gymnastics titles. She went on to make her Olympic debut in Rio one year later.

Claressa Shields also made history as the first American woman to win a Pan Ams medal in boxing. That was sandwiched between her two Olympic gold medals won in London and in Rio.

Swimmer Allison Schmitt had three Olympic gold medals going into Toronto, and won three Pan American Games gold medals there, then won another Olympic gold in Rio. Shooter Kim Rhode defended her title in women’s skeet shooting, adding more hardware to her resume that includes six Olympic medals.

Rhode will return to the Pan American Games once again this year, along with several familiar faces. Eight-time Olympic medalist Nathan Adrian is one of the highlights, as he is slated to swim in his first second international competition since his testicular cancer diagnosis.

The 2019 U.S. Pan American Team was announced Thursday and features 643 athletes, 91 of whom are Olympians. Thirty four of those athletes are Olympic medalists, including Adrian, Rhode, five-time Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig, four-time Olympic equestrian medalist Beezie Madden and two-time Olympic water polo champion Maggie Steffens.

New And Different Sports On Display
The Pan American and Olympic programs have a lot in common, but they also have some unique and interesting differences. Basque pelota, bodybuilding, bowling, racquetball, roller sports, squash and water ski/wakeboard are sports you’ll see in Lima but not in Tokyo.

Other sports will be a bit of an Olympic preview. Before they make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo, karate and surfing will be contested in Lima. Surfing will be making its Pan American Games debut as well. Baseball and softball, which will be making their return to the Olympic program, will also be played in Lima. Sport climbing is the only new Olympic sport not added, due to the lack of sufficient national federations across the Americas.

The Pan American Games also followed suit with the Olympic program when including new events within existing sports such as 3x3 basketball, BMX park and mixed team events in sports like triathlon and archery. The Pan American program also adopted the IOC’s efforts to balance gender equality by adding more women’s events, such as in boxing, in which two women’s weight classes have been added.

The only event to be dropped from the Pan American Games is women’s baseball, which made its debut in 2015.

The Parapan American Games Are Next
Much like the Olympic Games, the Pan American Games has a para competition that follows close after in the same city. The Parapan American Games begin Aug. 23 and feature athletes from 31 countries participating in 17 sports.

The 2015 Games were notable for the introduction of wheelchair rugby, or “murderball,” in which Team USA took home the silver. Visually impaired sprinter David Brown won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter, then went on to win gold in the 100 at the Paralympic Games in Rio.

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.