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'59 Pan Am games brought Olympic-level competition to Lake Co.
By Diana Dretske | Columnist

Fifty years ago, Lake County hosted Olympic-level competition for the Pan Am Games.


Courtesy Russell Equestrian Center, San Antonio

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Published: 8/12/2008 12:07 AM

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This summer's Olympic Games may seem a world away, but Lake County is no stranger to hosting international sporting events. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1959, Chicago hosted the Pan American Games with Lake County's help.

Similar to the Olympics, the Pan Am Games are held every four years in the year preceding the Olympics, and bring together athletes from the 42 countries in the Americas.

The first Pan Am Games were to take place in 1943 in Buenos Aires, but the outbreak of World War II postponed the games until 1951.

In order to successfully host the 1959 Pan Am Games, Chicago needed many venues for the different sporting events. Baseball was played at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, rowing was done in the Cal-Sag Canal and tennis was played at the Lincoln Park Tennis Club, for example.

Lake County hosted most of the modern pentathlon events. The modern pentathlon is an Olympic sport that consists of pistol shooting, epee fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping and cross-country running.

Pistol shooting was held at the Waukegan Shooting Range and fencing at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Cross-country events were run in Libertyville and equestrian events were also in Libertyville, at what is now Independence Grove Forest Preserve. The swimming competition was held in Portage Park, on Chicago's Northwest Side.

To prepare for the equestrian event, Libertyville resident Pat Connors bought the horses and trained them daily for two years leading up to the games. To prove their skills as horsemen, modern pentathletes could not use their own horses, and they were given only 20 minutes to get to know their horse before riding through a wooded 2.5-mile course that had approximately 23 obstacles and an 80-foot near-vertical slide built for the event.

The key organizer for the 1959 modern pentathlon was U.S. Army Col. John Russell. Col. Russell was known as an outstanding officer (he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Soldier's Medal and the Bronze Star in World War II) and a gifted equestrian. He had the unique distinction of riding on both the last official U.S. Army Olympic Team (London, 1948) and the first "civilian" U.S. Olympic team.

Over the years, Americans have lost interest in the Pan American Games, sending fewer athletes to compete and hardly covering the event in the media.

Certainly these days the focus in Chicago is on the Olympics and its bid to host the 2016 games.