By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The Pan American Games got off to a jaw-dropping start on Friday when the world's erstwhile fastest man appeared to throw himself off the iconic CN Tower during a dazzling opening ceremony that shook the city from its Pan Am slumber.
While the opening ceremony, created and inspired by Cirque du Soleil, attracted a capacity crowd of 45,000 to the Rogers Centre, hundreds of thousands of tickets remain unsold for the for the largest multi-sport event ever staged in Canada, raising fears of near-empty arenas at some events.
After two failed Olympic bids, Toronto -- for one night at least -- embraced the Pan Am Games with all its big city might offering more than 7,000 athletes from 41 countries a rousing and memorable welcome.
Drawing inspiration from Toronto’s vibrant multicultural makeup while paying homage to the country's aboriginal roots, the Cirque du Soleil spectacle was rich in symbolism with a Made In Canada stamp.
"To the visitors from 41 nations I say this, 'welcome, welcome to a place that will feel like home'," Saad Rafi, chief executive officer of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am organizing committee, told the packed stadium.
"What you will see is Canadian hearts are big. They swell for country that we love but they leave room for the country of our origin."
Breaking from tradition, the emotional highlight of the evening came early with the stirring arrival of the Pan Am flame.
With a blend of technology and pure magic, Donovan Bailey, once the world's fastest man, appeared to dive off CN Tower with torch in hand for one thousand feet towards the stadium beneath as a parachute billowed.
But it was all an optical illusion, and the sprinter was next seen on screens standing on the roof of the massive domed stadium.
Bailey was lowered from the roof and reunited with the other members of Canada's 4x100 meter relay team that shocked the world by blazing to gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The double Olympic, three-time world champion then passed the flame to the hope of a new generation, 15-year-old diver Faith Zacharias, who placed the torch center stage, where it remained for the rest of the ceremony.
The honor of lighting the Pan Am cauldron later fell to one of Canada's most popular athletes, two-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.
Taking the torch from the player hailed as Canada's next basketball great, NBA 2014 number one overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, Nash ran the flame outside the stadium to light the cast iron, pine cone-inspired cauldron as the July 10-26 Games opened to a burst of fireworks that lit up the clear night sky.
With International Olympic Committee president Dr. Thomas Bach and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper looking on, Argentina began the parade of nations with the hosts last to appear from the tunnel.
Sprint canoeist Mark Oldershaw led the 700-strong Canadian contingent into the stadium to a predictable roar that threatened to lift the lid off the domed stadium.
No Canadian production big or small would be complete without a nod to the national obsession of ice hockey, and sure enough National Hockey League greats Bobby Orr and Mark Messier helped carry the Olympic flag to the podium before Governor General David Johnston officially declared the July 10-26 Games open.
(Editing by Andrew Both)