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75 YEARS OF STARS AT THE PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 1948 – 1957

The countdown for the Top 75 athletes who have competed at the Pan American Games begins with those who set the example for the future of sport in the Americas beginning with 1948, the year the Pan American Sports Organization was founded.

Throughout the 75-year history of the Pan American Sports Organization, 18 editions of the Pan American Games have been held. In celebration of the Organization’s 75-year anniversary, Panam Sports looks back on the world’s greatest athletes in history who have competed at the Games.

The Pan American Sports Organization was founded in 1948, and every year since then athletes of the Americas have displayed their incredible skill, speed and strength not only at the Pan American Games, but also at the world’s biggest sporting events. Our Top 75 countdown begins the same year as the Organization’s creation with an incredible performance at the London 1948 Olympic Games. 

1948 – DELFO CABRERA (ARGENTINA) – MARATHON

At the Olympic Games in London, Argentinean marathon runner Delfo Cabrera surprised the world with his gold-medal performance. Despite trailing for the majority of the 26.2 mile race, Cabrera entered London’s Olympic Stadium with the determination to secure gold for his country. He sprinted past Etienne Gailly of Belgium and held off the challenge from silver medalist Tom Richards from Great Britain to reach the top of the podium at the Olympics in his first major international competition. 

Three years later, the first Pan American Games in history were held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fresh off of his Olympic victory in London and with the fans of his home country cheering him on, Cabrera once again crossed the finish line in first in the marathon event, making history for his country and helping Argentina secure the top of the medal table at Buenos Aires 1951. 

1949 – PAT MCCORMICK (UNITED STATES) – DIVING

At the first Pan American Games in history, a young American diver named Pat McCormick of the United Staes was ready to start her international career with a bang. She impressed the judges with her acrobatic moves in both the platform and springboard events, taking home the gold in the platform and a silver in the springboard at Buenos Aires 1951.

One year later, McCormick was ready to leave an even greater mark on the history books. She dominated the competition at the Helsinki 1952 Olympics, winning golds in both the platform and springboard events to solidify herself as the best diver in the world. But she wasn’t done yet. At the Mexico City 1955 Pan American Games, McCormick avenged her silver medal in the springboard by topping the podium while also defending her title in the platform event. She continued her dominance at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics, once again winning the gold medal in both diving events to secure her place as one of the best divers in history. 

1950 – HERB MCKENLEY (JAMAICA) – ATHLETICS

At the London 1948 Olympics, Herb McKenley of Jamaica was ready to start a long tradition of sprinting legends from the Caribbean nation. Although he narrowly missed the podium in the 200m event with a fourth place finish, he put on an incredible display of speed in the 400m race to win the silver medal despite being the world record holder in the event at the time. 

Three years later, McKenley competed in the first Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, winning a bronze medal in the 100m, 200m and 400m events. He then came back stronger than ever at the 1952 Olympic Games, winning his only Olympic gold in the 4x400m relay alongside his teammates while also adding silver medals in both the 100m and 400m sprints. 

1951 – MAL WHITFIELD (USA) – ATHLETICS

Malvin Whitfield of the United States was arguably the best middle distance sprinter of his generation. At the 1948 Olympics in London, Mal sprinted to the top of the podium in the men’s 800m event for his first Olympic gold. He added another gold in the 4x400m relay as well as a bronze in the individual 400m event. 

At the Buenos Aires 1951 Pan Am Games, Mal was ready to showcase his speed once more. He completed the incredibly rare triple crown in the middle distance events, winning golds in all three of the 400m, 800m and 4x400m relay competitions. He went on to defend his Olympic title in the 800m at Helsinki 1952 while also adding a silver in the 4x400m relay. 

1952 – RAFAEL FORTUN (CUBA) – ATHLETICS

The athletics competition at Buenos Aires 1951 featured many of the world’s fastest sprinters of the time. But it was none other than Cuba’s Rafael Fortun who showcased the power of the small island nation in the men’s 100m and 200m sprints. He crossed the finish line in first place in both events to complete the golden double, defeating the heavy favorite Art Bragg of the U.S. in both competitions. 

Fortun also competed in two Olympic Games and was a star of the Central American and Caribbean Games, winning five gold and three silver medals throughout his career at the qualifying event to the Pan American Games.

1953 – OSVALDO SUAREZ (ARGENTINA) – ATHLETICS

Osvaldo Suarez of Argentina quickly became the king of long-distance track events at the Pan American Games to start his career. He started with the impressive feat of winning both the men’s 5000m and 10000m races at Mexico City 1955. Despite his rising star status, he was prohibited from traveling to compete at the 1956 Olympics for political reasons. 

However, this didn’t stop Suarez from cementing his legacy as a star in athletics. At the Chicago 1959 Pan Am Games, he defending his title in the 10000m while also adding a silver in the 5000m event. Then at Sao Paolo 1963, he switched the two medals by winning the 5000m and coming in second in the 10000m to give him a total of four gold medals and two silvers in his illustrious athletics career. He also competed at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. 

1954 – MATEO FLORES (GUATEMALA) – MARATHON

Mateo Flores of Guatemala took the world by storm in 1952 while competing in the world famous Boston Marathon. Flores took the lead in the race at the 10-mile mark and would go on to dominate the race, beating the favorite Victor Dyrgall of the United States by more than 4 minutes. 

He continued his success at the Mexico City 1955 Pan American Games, once again crossing the finish line in first in the marathon event. His impressive victory was historical for Guatemala as the country’s first ever gold medal at the Pan American Games. Flores also competed in the 1952 Olympics and claimed the gold medal in the half marathon at the 1950 Central American and Caribbean Games.

1955 – JOAQUIN CAPILLA (MEXICO) – DIVING

Joaquin Capilla is arguably the best athlete in Mexico’s storied history of sporting success. He began his incredible diving career with a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympics in the platform event. He claimed the title as the best diver in the Americas at the 1951 Pan Am Games with victories in both the springboard and platform events. He then added his second Olympic medal with a silver in the platform event in 1952. 

At the Mexico City 1955 Pan Am Games in front of fans from his home country, Capilla defended both of his titles in the diving events. One year later, Capilla won just the third gold medal in his country’s history at the Olympics, claiming the throne in the platform event while also adding another bronze in the springboard at Melbourne 1956. 

1956 – ADHEMAR DA SILVA (BRAZIL) – ATHLETICS 

Adhemar da Silva of Brazil forever changed the history of the triple jump event in athletics. He competed in his first Olympics in 1948 where he finished in eighth place, but gold medals and world records were soon to follow. He tied the world record for the first time in 1950, then followed that up with his first gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1951 and then claimed the world record of his own later that year.

His outstanding performances continued at the Helsinki 1952 Olympics where he set two world records throughout the competition to easily come away with his first Olympic gold, with all of his final jumps surpassing 16 meters, the best of which his world record of 16.22m. Following his gold, Adhemar is credited with taking the first “victory lap” at the Olympics, a tradition followed by athletes to this day. 

He set his final world record at the 1955 Pan Am Games, easily claiming the gold medal with his unprecedented leap of 16.56m. He then went on to defend his Olympic title in 1956 and added his third Pan Am Games gold at Chicago 1959 to go undefeated in his career at the Games and solidifying himself as the one of the world’s greatest triple jumpers in history.

1957 – TOMMY KONO (USA) – WEIGHTLIFTING

Tommy Kono of the United States is one of the best weightlifters in history who set world records in four different weight classes throughout his incredible career. His success began at the 1952 Olympics where he won the gold medal in the -67.5kg weight class. His feats of strength continued at the World Championships where he won six gold medals from 1953 to 1959. 

He began his streak of dominance at the Pan American Games at Chicago 1959, winning the gold in the -82.5kg event. He went on to win three consecutive titles at the Games with his victories at Sao Paolo 1963 and Winnipeg 1967. He added another Olympic gold at Melbourne 1956 before adding a silver in Rome in 1960. 

Follow @panamsports on social media to see who lands in the Top 75 for the next decade in the history of sport in the Americas!