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Canadian officials say Olympic berths more important than medals at Pan Am Games

Canadian gold medal winner Richard Dalton at the Pan American Games in Ciudad Guzman, Mexico, Saturday Oct. 29, 2011. AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo.

Canada finished off the final medal podium for the first time in more than 50 years at the Pan American Games, nudged off by a proud host Mexican team and a Brazilian squad building toward the 2016 Summer Olympics.

But Canadian Olympic Committee officials said its difficult to gauge success from these Games, saying they won’t have much bearing on how Canada will do on the pitch and in the pool nine months from now in London.

The Canadian team’s goal for these Games weren’t about winning medals but rather penning names on tickets to London.

“We achieved our primary objective. Canada is on track to success in London,” said Caroline Assalian, the COC’s chief sport officer.

Canada had 119 medals — 30 gold, 40 silver, and 49 bronze — to finish fifth behind the United States (236), Brazil (141), Cuba (136), and Mexico (133) on Sunday.

The last time Canada failed to finish in the top three was at the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago. The Canadians won 137 medals four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But Mexico rode the swell of pride as host country to just miss the podium, and Brazil fielded a strong team intent on gaining ground as it builds toward the Olympics five years from now in Rio.

And fielding a Canadian team comprised of a mixed bag of athletes — some sports such as track and field and swimming sent developmental teams to the Games, while others such as field hockey and water polo had their top teams gunning for tickets to London — Canada’s main goal was securing Olympic berths.

Canadians earned eight — two each in synchronized swimming and canoeing, and one in equestrian, shooting, table tennis, and modern pentathlon — two more Olympics spots than the team clinched in Rio.

Canada also claimed first-ever Pan Am titles in women’s soccer, men’s baseball and rugby sevens, which was making its Pan Am debut. Canada’s Mary Spencer and Mandy Bujold also made history as the first gold medallists in women’s boxing, which made its debut at the Games.

“The best way to gauge Olympic success is not by looking at the results at these Games, instead to look how Canada is doing internationally at the world championships that are going on,” Assalian said. “To date, with 80 per cent of the world championships complete, Canada has already earned more medals at 2011 world championships than it did four years ago leading into Beijing.”

The 26-year-old Spencer capped an historic Games by carrying Canada’s flag in Sunday’s closing ceremonies at Omnilife Stadium. The boxer from Windsor, Ont., who’ll be a favourite to claim gold when women’s boxing makes its debut in London, said the experience gained in Mexico was invaluable.

“I just imagine the Olympics is going to be very similar, just on a larger scale. It’s definitely good to have this kind of exposure before being thrown in the fire at the Olympics for the first time,” said Spencer.

Now, the focus switches to Toronto, host of the Pan Am Games four years from now. Some two dozen officials from Toronto’s organizing committee spent three weeks in Guadalajara soaking up lessons on how to run the Games. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was to receive the Pan Am Games flag at the closing ceremonies in the traditional handover between host cities.

“This road is coming to an end, as of Monday the road to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games will lead us back home,” said COC president Marcel Aubut. “The road will culminate when team Canada enters a thunderous stadium at home in Toronto just as they did so well in Vancouver, Canadians will be cheering for our great athletes at the next Pan Am Games in Toronto.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement lauding the performance of Canada’s athletes.

“All Canadians are extremely proud of our athletes and their outstanding performances,” the statement read. “Their remarkable and unwavering dedication to their sport and their country is an inspiration to all and a testament to the values and spirit that make our country great.

“I wish Canada’s athletes all the best as they look to build upon these successes at future sporting events, including the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England and the 2015 Pan American Games being hosted in Toronto.”

These Games weren’t without their heartbreaking near-misses. Canada narrowly missed Olympic berths in men’s and women’s water polo and men’s field hockey, the women’s water polo team losing 27-26 to the U.S. in a penalty shootout.

“When you watch how these Games unfold, and myself being a sports person watching these things, I think the faces on the athletes is a tell-all to how it is,” said Curt Harnett, Canada’s assistant chef de mission and an Olympic cycling medallist. “But I couldn’t be prouder of how they performed and how we came here and they fought right to the finish, all our teams did, and in my eyes, all earned gold medals. Unfortunately, I’m not the decision maker.”

Harnett’s voice was still raspy from cheering at the men’s field hockey game.

The teams now face difficult back-door routes to qualify for London.

“We don’t know where (the second-chance qualifying tournament) is going to be, we don’t know what teams, but this team is a tough bunch of guys, we’re not giving up yet,” said Rob Short, a veteran of Canada’s field hockey team. “We’ll be there, we’re going to fight for it.”

Canada also lost a medal when wakeboarder Aaron Rathy tested positive for a banned substance, the first in-competition positive drug test of the Games. The 23-year-old native of Nanaimo, B.C., was forced to return his silver medal after the stimulant methylhexaneamine was found in his system. Rathy apologized, blaming it on a supplement.

The Guadalajara Games wrapped up Sunday, capping an event that opened amid concerns about security, delays in construction, and fears about positive drugs tests from Mexican beef in the country’s second-largest city better known for its mariachi music, tacos and tequila.

The event went off without any serious glitches. Security was never an issue as some 10,000 soldiers and police officers armed with automatic weapons patrolled the city, and Games organizers guaranteed the meat served in the athletes village was 100-per cent clenbuterol-free — the anabolic steroid that was found in the doping tests of more than 100 players at the recent FIFA under-17 World Cup. The positive tests were blamed on the steroid that some Mexican farmers inject into cows.

And after much criticism about construction delays, all were cleared in time for competition, the track and field stadium coming in just under the wire. The lanes were painted on the track just days before the opening ceremonies, and the venue was still missing some final touches such as seats on the toilets and mirrors on bathroom walls. Remnants of plastic wrap still clung to the back of the seats in the stands.

Concerns about “Montezuma’s Revenge” never made an impact in Guadalajara, with officials saying only about 10 people — of the more than 10,000 athletes and coaches at the athletes village — showing any symptoms related to food or water contamination.

“The food is not what we are used to, and they talked about the water and all that stuff, but we haven’t had any problems,” Canadian softball player Kaleigh Rafter said earlier in the Games. “We are all happy with everything.”

Canada’s Karen Cockburn, a three-time Olympic medallist, and teammate Charles Thibault had to withdraw from the trampoline final after falling ill, but medical officials couldn’t confirm that it was from something they’d picked up in Guadalajara.