The Associated Press October 13, 2011, 10:38AM ET

Ready or not, curtain coming up for Pan Am Games

The curtain is coming up at the Pan American Games amid a sprint to finish a long-delayed track and field stadium and with the streets of Guadalajara patrolled by an estimated 10,000 police and military personnel in drug-torn Mexico.

And once the games begin, they will be missing many top stars, including Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.

The organization of the quadrennial event, which will draw 6,000 athletes from 42 nations in the Americas, is sure to come under intense scrutiny as Mexico plays host to its first major event since the 1986 World Cup -- and first big multi-sport competition since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Organizers have openly acknowledged that poor planning and political infighting have caused numerous delays in getting venues ready for Friday's opening ceremony.

Hanging over everything else is the specter of drug violence, which has been blamed for the deaths of at least 35,000 people -- some estimates say 40,000 -- since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime in late 2006.

Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco have been less affected than many cities in the north of the country, closer to the border with the United States. The last headline-grabbing incidents in Guadalajara took place in February when grenade attacks at the entrance of a nightclub killed six people.

"We've spent four years getting ready for this celebration, and we have personnel capable so that it will be this way," said Luis Carlos Najera, secretary of Public Security for the state of Jalisco. "Without doubt, it will be a stern test. But we are ready."

Other elements of the preparations are being questioned.

Last week at the opening of the athletes' village, which faced delays and a legal battle over its environmental impact, one of Latin America's most powerful sports officials acknowledged organizational failings.

"I haven't said this in a long time, but in order to organize the best games in history we would have to top Brazil," said Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Pan American Sports Organization, referring to the 2007 Games in Rio de Janeiro. "In terms of organization, we have not done that. We made many errors."

Although last-minute work remains on several venues, most attention is focused on the 8,500-seat track and field stadium. Lane markers were only put down a few days ago, and the IAAF certified the track earlier in the week. That means the IAAF can ratify any records set when track competition opens Oct. 23.

Problems remain at the stadium. Workers moved frantically under heavy rain Wednesday trying to finish off work on access ramps, dressing rooms and exterior lighting with the muddy venue littered with machinery.

The heavy rain, a fallout from Hurricane Jova which struck Mexico's Pacific coast, threatened to affect Friday's opening ceremony.

"We will continue working, and the stadium will be finished," organizing committee director Carlos Andrade Garin said. "The rain has slowed us down a bit, but it won't stop us."

The $28 million venue is a drastically scaled down version of an eye-catching original plan to build a 15,000-capacity stadium overlooking one of Guadalajara's natural beauty spots, the Huentitan Canyon.

"You know very well that we had a lot of problems with the organizing committee," Vazquez Rana said. "Five or six months ago we began to see light at the end of the tunnel. ... A year ago it did not seem the games would take place in Guadalajara."

Despite disputes and delays, the games should produce a feel-good factor among Mexicans weary of the daily news about drug-related killings. It also should give three weeks worth of publicity to Guadalajara. Mexico's second city is located 350 miles northwest of Mexico City, and is best known as the home of tequila and mariachi.

"Right now, the energy and enthusiasm being generated by the Pan American Games has created a beautiful atmosphere," said Lorena Ochoa, the former No. 1-ranked female golfer who grew up in Guadalajara and is working as a games ambassador. "Everyone has their arms wide open."

The United States will have the largest delegation with 627 athletes, followed by Brazil with more than 500. The United States, the traditional power, is sending 82 Olympians, 40 of whom who are Olympic medalists. The most decorated are gymnast Shawn Johnson and shooter Kim Rhode with four medals apiece.

Those sports powers traditionally use the games to test new athletes, while smaller nations compete aggressively for medals they are unlikely to win at next year's London Olympics. The games offer direct qualification in a dozen sports to next year's Olympics.

The Netherlands Antilles will have 11 athletes competing under the flag of the Pan American Sports Organization because the International Olympic Committee no longer recognizes it as an independent country. Next year, athletes from the islands located off the northeast coast of South America will compete under the IOC flag in London.

The Pan Am Games are also about who's missing, like world-record holder Bolt. After false-starting in the 100-meter final and winning the 200 at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, the Jamaican will not be running in Guadalajara.

Brazilian soccer player Neymar, often called the world's best young player, is also skipping the event. The same for American swim star Michael Phelps.

One of the biggest names on the track will be Cuban hurdler Dayron Robles, the defending Olympic champion and 110-meter world-record holder. World champion pole vaulter Fabiana Murer of Brazil will also get attention, as will swimmers Cesar Cielo of Brazil and Albert Subirats of Venezuela.

Mexico's attention will be focused on Paola Espinosa, who won a diving bronze medal three years ago at the Beijing Olympics.

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Associated Press writer Carlos Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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Stephen Wade can be reached at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP


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