SANTO DOMINGO – Tennis may not be the top sport at the Pan American Games, but a tennis player may be the most famous athlete at the event.
Marcelo Rios, a former world No. 1, will represent Chile at the games, which open today and run through August 17, with 42 participating countries.
The United States, who generally take home the most medals from the games, has not sent their top team. That means traditional powers Cuba and Canada will be battling for regional supremacy, with hosts Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina also looking to win a haul of medals.
Eight of the events will serve as Olympic qualifiers – boxing, equestrian, field hockey, handball, modern pentathlon, shooting, triathlon and water polo.
The remaining 27 disciplines may not have any direct qualification incentives, but regional pride will guarantee a good show.
The 43rd-ranked Rios, who became the first South American to reach the top ranking in world tennis in 1998, is just 14-10 this year. His best showing came in his native country in February when he lost in the final of the BellSouth Open to David Sanchez of Spain in Vina Del Mar.
Other top names at the games include Cuban Olympic champion Ivan Pedroso, who is likely to win the gold medal in the long jump. Hoping to win a fifth world title in Paris next month, he set a seasonal personal best last month in Italy, jumping 8.31 metres.
Another athletics star for Cuba will be Olympic champion Anier Garcia in the 110-metre hurdles.
Cuba’s boxing and baseball teams remain perennial favourites.
The Dominican Republic have a large team expected to compete in most events, but 400 hurdles world champion Felix Sanchez is the team’s star.
The 25-year-old Dominican, who was born in the United States but took on his parents’ nationality, isn’t aiming merely for gold. He also wants to set a Pan American Games record.
“It will be the first time I’ve had the public supporting me,” Sanchez said. “I’ve always been running against the public’s favourites, whether in Rome, London or some place else.
“To win a gold medal in front of my compatriots would be a big thing. But nothing could be better than setting a new Pan American record.”
Sanchez has won 23 races in a row. The Pan American 400 hurdles record of 48.23 seconds is held by Eronilde Nunez de Araujo of Brazil.
In the 400, No. 1-ranked Ana Guevara of Mexico, the defending world champion, will be the favourite. Mexico also boast diver Fernando Platas and weightlifter Soraya Jimenez.
Argentina are expected to do well in the pool, with Jose Meolans featuring in the 50 and 100 freestyle.
Last month, he beat three-time Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100 freestyle at a World Cup event in Berlin.
The men’s soccer and basketball teams, along with the women’s field hockey team, are also expected to bring medals for Argentina.
Brazil are also expected to do well in several team events. Both the men’s and women’s soccer teams could medal, while the men’s basketball and volleyball teams are also in the elite at the games.
In the pool, Fernando Scherer is another Brazilian hopeful.
This is the 14th Pan American Games. The games, which are held every four years before an Olympic year, started in 1951 in Argentina. They were originally slated to be held in 1942, but they were postponed because of World War II.