By CLAUDE SCILLEY
TORONTO/March 19—It was, Nicole Clarke recalled, a sobering moment.
The day was March 4, a Wednesday, and the premier had stopped by the office of the Pan American Games organizing committee to preside over the ceremony to unveil the medals that will be presented to the athletes.
Someone commented that there were just 18 Wednesdays until the Games begin.
It wasn’t like a chill descended over the room, Clarke recalled, but put in that context, it gave everyone pause. “When you put it in that perspective,” she said, “(you realize) it’s close. There’s not a lot of time left.”
Clarke, the La Salle Secondary School graduate, has been part of the group preparing for the Games since August, 2013. She’s the sport manager for athletics—aka track and field—and tennis.
“It’s amazing how fast a year and a half has gone,” she said. “I feel like I just started. It’s amazing how time goes lightning quick in a Games situation.
“It was a little bit of a shock for everybody in the room when they say it that way, but we knew it was coming and there’s one thing about a Games: there’s an opening ceremony date and it’s not going to change. We know the Games start July 10, and we’ll need to be ready by then.”
A three-time provincial high school medalist in shot put and discus while representing La Salle, Clarke went to Queen’s University, where she studied physical education with an eye to a career in physiotherapy or teaching. During that time, she competed at the Canada Games in London in 2001, and was a member of a national junior team at an international meet in the Cayman Islands, where she won a bronze medal.
“It’s funny,” she said. “When I started university, sport administration wasn’t on my radar (but) when I was at Queen’s I started working in the home events department to help pay for school. I really enjoyed it. When I was finished at Queen’s I (thought), ‘I’m going to try this route instead of teachers college,’ and I’m quite happy with the decision I made.”
From Queen’s, Clarke got her Masters in sport administration at the University of Ottawa, and as part of that program, did an internship at Athletics Canada, the national sport-governing body for track and field. “Obviously, with my track background, it was a very good fit that I got to stay with my sport, see the other side of it, after being an athlete for so long.”
That was the spring of 2004, and at that point Clarke came home, to work in the home events department at Queen’s. Two years later, an opportunity arose for a full-time job managing events for Athletics Canada, where Clarke worked until taking the Pan Am gig—with one notable exception. In 2009 she took a leave of absence to go to Vancouver and work at the Olympics.
“It’s not very often the Olympics are hosted in your home country, so I was very fortunate that they gave me the opportunity,” Clarke said. In Vancouver, she managed the figure skaters’ training venue.
“Toronto was named (Pan Am Games) host while I was in Vancouver, so in the back of my head I was, like, ‘That would be kind of cool to work another Games,’ and it’s a summer Games, with a chance to work in my sport, so when the opportunity presented itself to come to Toronto I took it.”
The experience left a lasting impression.
“It opened my eyes to what it takes to put on an international multisport games,” Clarke said. “All my experience at Athletics Canada was one sport, a couple of days, you were in and out—much shorter duration, not as many athletes, not as many venues.
“You hit the ground running. In Vancouver, I was only there for nine months. The first week was, ‘This will be done and this is what you’re going to do,’ and you go off and do your thing. Being here a little bit longer, and being more a part of the planning process, has been an experience in itself, getting to see some of the stuff that in Vancouver was already done (by the time I got there).
“I don’t think it’s for everybody, the way an organizing committee runs. It’s very fast paced and you’re never bored. Going to work every day is always different.”
Work as a sport manager, Clark explained, involves working with international and continental federations to make sure that everything is in place when the athletes arrive, “so they can have the best opportunity to compete at the highest level while they’re here.”
The other aspect in Clarke’s purview involves producing the technical manuals, team leader’s guides, officials manuals, getting officials in place, making sure facilities have all the right equipment, and creating the competition schedules, in conjunction with each individual sport’s organizing committee. Most recently, Clarke has been working to co-ordinate and schedule the 300 or so volunteers that will work at the two venues.
Both track and tennis will be contested at York University— tennis at the Rexall Centre, home of the annual Rogers Cup tournament, and athletics at a new 12,000-seat facility expected to be completed in May.
“It’s exciting,” Clarke said. “We had a timeline and we’re on target for that. We’re just kind of knocking things off one at a time and we’ll be ready to go at Games time.”
Once the Games begin, Clarke’s role will be to oversee activity at the venues, make sure schedules are followed, ensure that everything is in place, and deal with “any bumps in the road that come up.”
Having been a competitor, Clarke said, provided a good foundation for work in event organization.
“Being an athlete kind of gets you into the routine and the mentality of the work that needs to be done to prepare,” she said. “There are certain things that you need to do to hit a goal. Having had the athlete experience, you know what athletes are looking for when they come to events. You remember what the good things were and what the bad things were when you were at events, so you try and make sure you have the good stuff and try not to have so much of the bad.”
Such as poorly timed transportation, for instance.
“The worst thing was having to wait around for a bus 30 minutes or an hour after you were finished competing,” she said. “Keeping good transportation in place (is important). Also when they come to the track, athletes want to be able to perform to the best of their abilities, so making sure that everything is in place for them, the right equipment … making sure it’s as easy as possible for them so they can just focus on what they need to do, and not worry about outside distractions.”
Clarke expects competitive fields in track and field. “It’s a year out from (the 2016 Olympics at) Rio, so most of the countries will be sending their top athletes. For a lot of them, it’s their final big meet before heading to Beijing (later this year) for the world championships.
“Canada should have a good team. Canada has had really good results lately, last year at Commonwealth Games we did really well. The up and coming, younger generation of athletes are starting to shine through.”
Through it all, Clarke draws inspiration from her time in Vancouver. “Being in Vancouver was an amazing experience,” she said. “It brought the entire country together to see what sport is all about.”
It helps to deal with criticism that has arisen since the games were awarded to Toronto five years ago.
“We try to, not ignore it, but keep moving on,” Clarke said. “The same thing happened in Vancovuer, there was some negative press (beforehand) but as soon as the Games started, it all went away. In Vancouver, the same things came up, like cost, but we, as an organizing committee, know what we’re here to do. Toronto is going to leave such a legacy in terms of infrastructure, in terms of the velodrome in Milton, the swimming facility in Scarborough.
“Hopefully once the Games start and everybody gets excited and they see it, that will change. The pride that Canada showed for hosting the (Olympics), how the whole country bought into it once the Games started, it was pretty amazing to see. I’m hoping that Toronto will experience that come July 10 once the Pan Am Games start.”
Clarke believes it may have started to happen.
“People are actually talking about it,” she said. “I was in Kingston over the holiday and my sister and I went for pedicures at the Cataraqui Centre and I just happened to be talking to the lady sitting beside me. She asked me what I did and I said I work for the Pan Am Games, and she said, ‘Ah, I’ve seen your commercial on TV. I’m not much of a sports fan but I love the commercial and I’m looking forward to watching it.’
“That was kind of cool, to talk to somebody who might not really follow it but now that they’ve heard of it, they’re excited about the Games coming.”