Winnipeg is busily preparing to host more than 7,000 athletes, coaches and media from more than 40 countries for the 1999 Pan American Games, and one of the chief organizers once made her home right here in Fort Frances.
Laurie Nealin, a Thunder Bay native who lived here for eight years with her husband, John, a former program manager and news director at CFOB, is one of five members at the core of the Games' media relations department.
Nealin is on loan from her communications/public relations job with the federal government until the Games are over.
She admitted her job as publicity co-ordinator for the Games is a daunting one (often exceeding 14-hour days) as she helps Winnipeg prepare for what has been billed as the third-largest multi-sport Games ever to be held in North America (after the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympics).
Part of the problem is the diversity of languages and cultures that have to be accommodated for the event, making its second trip to Winnipeg (the city also hosted the Pan-Am Games in 1967).
In fact, a pilot program was launched back in March of last year to help prepare students to become English/Spanish interpreters. Nealin, herself, also is preparing to learn the language.
“With media relations, our job is to set up news conferences for people from agencies in France, Latin America and Europe, who speak different languages, so interpreters are a must,” said Nealin, who began her three-year term with the Games in January.
One of her main jobs these days is to create awareness to help attract the thousands of volunteers needed to ensure the Games run smoothly.
“We already have around 1,100 volunteers but we need about 15,000 for the event so it's very important to get as many people involved from our community as possible and create enthusiasm,” Nealin stressed.
“We're recruiting volunteers by launching promotions and contests, and we already have 120 people who volunteered in 1967 who, now 30 years later, have signed up to volunteer again,” she added.
Part of the challenge is to recreate interest that has been lacking at the past two Pan-Am Games—1995 in Mar del Plata, Argentina and 1991 in Havana, Cuba—that she said saw “very little coverage.”
So part of Nealin's job is to stay in contact with many of the larger newspapers across Canada.
“I gather information and things of interest for possible stories for the major newspapers with a local angle," she noted. "And if I'm in Fort Frances like I am now, or Thunder Bay, I'll try get in touch with their newspapers as well to bring attention to the event.”
Nealin said she has a “very good relation” with both papers in Winnipeg, and has kept in contact with their reporters on a weekly basis.
“There's no doubt the Free Press and the Sun recognize the economic impact and what it can do to put our city and province on the map,” she added.
And with 41 of the 42 participating countries already signed for television contracts to be broadcast back in their home country, these Pan-Am Games already have garnered much-needed TV coverage, including deals with CBU and OTI that will ensure all of the Caribbean, Central and South America can tune in.
The only exception so far is the United States, said Nealin, noting negotiations are ongoing with both ABC and ESPN.
Here in Canada, Nealin said the TV rights are part of a “unique partnership” between CBC and TSN that will see the two networks share equipment and resources while providing about 100 hours of coverage.
Television coverage is an integral part of the Games, that will see estimated total expenditures set at $267 million.
Nealin also noted a portion of the planning for the Pan-Am Games borrows from what was done at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 1994 and last summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“The Commonwealth Games were the last major games in Canada so we took a look at what their public relations [department] did, and we developed plans partly based on them and what was done in Atlanta,” she noted.
“We're obviously not as big as Atlanta but we can still use some of their ideas.”
Nealin said another one of their tasks is to make people from outside Winnipeg, like here in Rainy River District, aware the Pan-Am Games are just two short years away.
"We want people from outside the area, who are just a three or four-hour drive away, to think ahead and plan their vacations for Winnipeg in the summer of 1999.
“The tickets are well-priced, and are geared to be affordable for the family,” she added, noting 111,000 people are expected to visit the area during the Games, slated July 24 to Aug. 8.