SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The opening ceremony of Chile’s first Pan American Games on Friday was not only a celebration of athletes, Indigenous peoples and poetry, but laid bare the politically divided country’s scars from the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet from 1973 until 1990.
In the most awaited moment of the two-hour event, the Pan American flame came through “the tunnel of memory” and into the National Stadium in Santiago that was a center of torture and executions after the coup d’etat five decades ago.
“A people without memory is a people without future,” a sign at the stadium’s entrance reads.
Lucy Lopez, 93, who won a silver in the high jump at the 1951 Pan American Games, Chile’s first medal in the games, lit the cauldron.
Current pro-democracy Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who has emphasized the need to stand up with the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, opened the games in the two-thirds filled 47,000-seat stadium. The 37-year-old leader was cheered by the crowd minutes earlier as he was filmed swinging his nephew during the parade of athletes.
The Pan American Games, the largest multi-sport event in the Americas, take place one year before the Olympics. The National Stadium and its surroundings were renovated for the competitions. Six new venues were built for 30 sporting events, an investment of $507 million.
Almost 7,000 athletes from 41 countries and territories will compete in the games that last until Nov. 5. More than 4,000 took part in the parade, with the Andes that surround the Chilean capital overseeing their celebration. Many will compete on Saturday in swimming, diving and skateboarding events, among others.
There are more than 100 spots available for next year’s Paris Olympics as well as the usual contest for second place in the medals count behind the United States. Many athletes expected to shine in France will compete in Chile, including Brazilian gymnast Rebeca Andrade, Canadian swimmer Maggie Mac Neil an Dominican sprinter Marileidy Paulino.
The U.S. team of 631 athletes includes 93 Olympians and 32 Olympic medalists, more than any other nation. Among them are the two flag bearers in Friday’s parade, 22-year-old gymnast Jordan Chiles, a silver medalist in the 2020 games in Japan, and 34-year-old shooter Vincent Hancock, a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
The opening ceremony also celebrated two of the country’s most famous poets, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra was the main musical attraction of the evening.
The ceremony also paid a tribute to the ingenuity and music of Chile’s Indigenous peoples, who have long endured racism and violence, especially during the Pinochet regime.
Polls have shown that most of Santiago’s residents support their city playing host to the event, but psychologist Selena Torres, 45, thinks Chile should have other priorities.
“Our country has deep political divisions, the cost of living is very high and poverty is high,” Torres said in the upscale neighborhood of Providencia, 5 kilometers (3 miles) north of the National Stadium.
Javier Sosa, a 25-year-old engineer who attended the ceremony, disagreed.
“We can protest about whatever is going wrong and still celebrate we can do some things well,” he said. “It is a great chance to show we can do nice things here, too.”
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