The unique experience that is the Pan Am Games

TORONTO -- The Pan American Games have dropped into this city the way a toddler's toys take over a living room, inviting residents to come and play, causing irritation when they step on stuff that wasn't there before. Miles of perimeter fencing covered with festive fabric have erupted around the athletic venues. White tents shelter metal detectors and merchandise, the sure sign that an international sporting carnival has come to town.

This quadrennial mini-Olympics features athletes from 41 countries stretching from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn. The event comes with some of the familiar trappings and foibles of its gigantic cousin, the Summer Games. Friday night's opening ceremony will be headlined by that Canadian treasure Cirque du Soleil. There are also direct Rio 2016 qualification implications for 10 sports.

On the B side, Toronto's clogged traffic arteries seem ready to provoke cardiac arrest. There is angst about the $2.5 billion price tag and debate about whether the buildings and infrastructure that will be left behind were really, truly worth the hassles.

How much the city will embrace the event remains to be seen. Some irreverent urbanites started a shrine and a Twitter hashtag this week for a roadkill raccoon left to linger too long, then claimed the image was generating more passion than the Games. Organizers say that 800,000 of a total 1.4 million tickets have been sold thus far. That number can be interpreted as either dire or mildly promising, depending on one's viewpoint on a low-profile event held in the dead of summer when people generally flee cities unless there is a very good reason to stay.

So is there a "there" here? The athletes are inclined to say yes, because they play the schedule and this is what's next. Smaller nations get to be bigger fish in a medium-sized pond. Fringe sports are either happy to be here or trying to make a case for future Olympic inclusion. The baseball tournament, drawing from so many of the sport's most passionate and skilled countries, is always scintillating. In what has become a near-routine Pan Am occurrence, defections by Cuban athletes began even before the first pitch was thrown.

As for the behemoth United States, the Pan Ams bring together a distinctive mix of young athletes on their way up, accomplished veterans trying to gather the last fruits of their labors, and a smattering of stars who have chosen to be here for a variety of reasons. Kim Rhode, a 35-year-old five-time Olympic medalist in shooting sports who is aiming for a sixth, was selected by team captains from other sports to carry the U.S. flag into the opening ceremony. Jennifer Valente, a 20-year-old track cyclist, will try to maintain her momentum a few months after winning a world championships silver medal in individual pursuit.

One of the most venerable members of the U.S. team, 39-year-old triathlete Hunter Kemper, believes he may have a fifth Olympic trip left in him. Sixteen years ago, then a recent Wake Forest University graduate, he traveled to Winnipeg for his first Pan Am Games appearance and won a silver medal. The following year, Kemper had the electrifying experience of diving into Sydney Harbor as part of the inaugural Olympic triathlon. In 2003, he won Pan Am Games gold in Santo Domingo, presaging top-10 Olympic finishes in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008).

This week, Kemper drove to Toronto in a minivan with his wife and the two eldest of his four children, then went through the familiar drill of processing, receiving his credential and Team USA apparel. He is occupying a double room alone -- one of the perks of age. "This is a little more stagey, a little more pomp and circumstance," than a World Cup race or other one-off international competition where athletes come in on their own, race and depart without much sense of a collective, Kemper said.

On Thursday afternoon, he sat at a café table on the entrance plaza of the athletes' village and grinned broadly at his surroundings. A group of Colombian women athletes clad in yellow, black and white -- one wearing a gold cardboard tiara -- had just staged its own parade, blaring portable music and dancing up to the village's temporary bank branch. As other delegations arrived, volunteers holding ceremonial placards led them in and performed musical numbers on a soundstage.

The ambience was county fair-like compared to the vast theme park apparatus of an Olympics, but an upbeat Kemper said he is perpetually charmed by it all. "It never gets old," he said. "I won't be here in 2019. As I get toward the end of my career, to me it's a big deal."

It helps that there's something fairly substantial on the line. If he or either of his two teammates, Eric Lagerstrom and Kevin McDowell, were to win Sunday's race, the victory would secure a third spot for the U.S. in Rio.

Kemper's career has encompassed the young history of his sport at the Olympic level. It also has paralleled a time when public questioning about the civic value of hosting massive international events has grown far more intense and pointed.

"I like the idea that different parts of the world can host [big Olympic-style events]," Kemper said. "I don't think there should be a permanent location. But I do see the point. You don't want to see buildings go unused or [cities] go massively in debt."

For the next 16 days, he and others will try to make the investment worthwhile.