By Mary Giorgio

Over the last 30 years, Indianapolis has become a popular destination for amateur sporting competitions. Its reputation as a world-class host was cemented in 1987 when the city successfully hosted the X Pan American Games.

That year, Indianapolis became only the second American city in history to host the games, which brought 4,000 athletes and over 900,000 fans to the Circle City.

In the late 1960s, Indianapolis leadership began to map out an economic recovery for downtown Indianapolis. At that time, the city was plagued with closed businesses and deteriorating infrastructure. Part of the city’s efforts focused on creating the atmosphere that would bring sports, conventions, and other large events to the city. By 1979, the city was ready to begin promoting itself as a desirable location for amateur sporting events.

Meanwhile, the Pan American Games, one of the largest sporting competitions in the world, was gearing up 1987. In 1981, it was announced the games would take place in Santiago, Chile. Unfortunately, by late 1983, it was apparent the combination of political and financial turmoil smoldering within Chile had hampered Santiago’s ability to host the games. With infrastructure development way behind schedule, Santiago had to withdraw as the host city for the games.

1987 Pan American Games, USPS Souvenir Folder

The committee next turned to Quito, Ecuador, with an offer to host the 1987 games. The city agreed, but by the end of 1984, they too had proven unable to pull together the capital needed to bring the games to their city.

Now only two and a half years out, the Pan American committee was desperate to find a host city that already had infrastructure in place that would support the games.

Indianapolis leadership saw its chance for a big debut on an international level and raised its hand.

The city had numerous sporting complexes that could be used to host the games and committed citizens willing to put the final pieces in place. Following a personal appeal from Mayor Hudnut, Indianapolis was chosen as the 1987 host city.

The Indianapolis News. 7/4/1986.

The decision was not welcome news to everyone, though. The chief complainant was Fidel Castro. Not only had Castro hoped to bring the games to Havana, but tensions between the US and Cuba were high. Cuban athletes had not set foot in America since before the Communist Revolution. Castro threatened to boycott the games.

For some odd reason, Bobby Knight also thought the Pan American games a bad idea. 

What followed was a diplomatic scramble to ensure Cuba’s participation. In the 1980s, the two most competitive teams at the Pan American Games were America and Cuba. Without Cuban participation, organizers feared that attendance would drop and televised viewing would plummet.  Indianapolis had poured a lot of money into the games and needed the revenue that spectators would bring.

Opening Ceremonies. Credit: Indiana Historical Society

In the end, a diplomatic mission to Cuba led to Castro’s pledge to send Cuban athletes to the games. The pot was sweetened by arranging for the games to be televised in Cuba and promising Castro the hosting rights for the 1991 games.

Everything was looking rosy for Indianapolis.

The city hired hundreds to run the event. Disney agreed to plan a spectacular opening program. The city installed thousands of temporary seats at sporting venues, built accommodations for over 4,000 athletes at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and recruited a whopping 35,000 volunteers. They even hired a local artist to custom design a mascot for the games, a lime green parrot named Amigo.

The games commenced in August 1987 and lasted three weeks. Athletes from 38 countries competed in 30 different sporting events. The opening program designed by the Walt Disney Corporation featured 6,500 performers and drew a crowd of over 70,000 spectators. It was the largest outdoor live entertainment show produced in the US up to that date.

Framed 1987 Pan Am Games Poster - Mar 22, 2021 | Denotter Auctions, LLC in IL

Events took place at many of Indianapolis’s most beloved sports venues – Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, Bush Stadium, the Indiana University Natatorium, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Market Square Arena.

Other events took place in more out-of-the-box locations. A weightlifting competition took place at Hilbert Circle Theater. Nearby Brown County State Park became the site of a cycling competition. Equestrian events were scheduled at Camp Atterbury. Yachting contestants traveled all the way to Michigan City to compete on Lake Michigan.

August 8, 1987 - Opening Ceremonies for the 10th Pan American Games at Indianapolis - YouTube

Cuban-American team rivalries in boxing and baseball proved to be the competitive matches fans were waiting for. In the end, Cuba beat America 13-9 to take gold in baseball. The Cuban team also won 10 gold medals in boxing. Despite these losses, American athletes finished the games with the most gold medals, followed by Cuba and Canada.

The games had their share of endearing moments as well. After Anthony Nesty won gold and bronze medals in swimming, stories abounded about his experiences training in Suriname as a young boy. The country only had one swimming pool suitable for training and Nesty’s family made great sacrifices to ensure that their boy could train at the facility.

Louganis gave his ’87 Pan Am medals to Ryan White

Other exciting moments came when American athlete Greg Louganis won two gold medals in diving. Jackie Joyner-Kersee tied the world long jump record of 24 feet 5 ½ inches, taking home gold. Costa Rican swimmer Silvia Poll surprised the crowd with an 8-medal finish.

Despite many memorable moments, the games didn’t go off without a hitch. Cuban defectors incited multiple incidents throughout the games. During opening ceremonies, they upset Cuban athletes by flying a plane over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a big banner urging athletes to defect.

At a baseball game, an anti-Castro group taunted Cuban players, leading to a fight in the stands and several injuries. Cuban boxing star Pablo Romero and several other Cuban boxers clashed with a crowd of spectators after being taunted. Police estimated that as many as 100 onlookers were caught in the melee. After political pressure to desist, the third and final week of events was quiet, and the games came to a peaceful close with a memorial performance by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.

Indianapolis breathed a collective sigh of relief. The games were over and despite a few incidents, had put Indianapolis in the spotlight as a desirable event venue. The three-week event brought about 900,000 spectators to the city and $175 million to the local economy.

Indianapolis became the first Pan American host city to break even on the games (up until that point, every host city had lost money on the event).

Better yet, the games brought the national spotlight to Indianapolis and led to contracts for other sporting events. The National Collegiate Athletics Association chose Indianapolis as their headquarters and lucrative Final Four basketball tournaments came to the city. In many ways, the games even set the stage for Indianapolis’s successful bid for Super Bowl XLVI.

The Pan American Games continue to be one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world. In recent years, the games have taken place in Guadalajara, Mexico, Toronto, Canada, and Lima, Peru.

The 2023 Games will be held in Santiago, Chile.