SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. -- The Canada Summer Games officially opened in the country's smallest province Saturday, amid celtic dancers, bagpipes and handshakes from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Athletes, coaches and officials from across the country marched into the Consolidated Credit Union Place for the opening ceremonies, stopping to shake hands and pose for pictures as they passed by Harper and Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.
"We all know we have a great country, but when I look out at these young people here, what a great country we're going to have long into the future," Harper said, looking out at the athletes seated on benches on the arena floor. "Over the next two weeks, thousands of visitors from across our country will get a chance to cheer on the next generation of world-class Canadian athletes, and they will do it while enjoying the natural beauty of this island and the unparalleled hospitality of those who call it home."
Some 4,400 athletes, coaches and officials will participate in 22 sports in the Games, which run through to Aug. 29 at venues across the island.
"Over the next two weeks, we'll present a truly unique Games experience to you all," said Games president Joseph Spriet. "It is a province-wide Games, it's the first time ever a province is undertaking this."
The 2009 Games are costing $33 million, with some $7 million coming from the private sector.
The Canada Games, first held in 1967 in Quebec City, are considered a stepping stone to international and professional sports, and boast the likes of hockey star Sidney Crosby, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and speedskater Catriona Le May Doan among their alumni.
"As our country's largest national multi-sport event, the Games serve as a superb training ground for international competition," Harper said. "Many of those who will be competing for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler got their start as young participants as these Games."
Le May Doan, along with Chris Daw (Paralympic curling), Anna Stammberger (basketball), Cassie Campbell (hockey), Dave McEachern (bobsled), Marianne Limpert (swimming), and Heather Moyse (rugby, bobsled), marched in with the Canada Games Flag.
"So many of the athletes who are your role models, those whom you've admired since childhood have competed in the Canada Games in summer and in winter," Jean said. "But today it's your turn, it's your turn to make your way to the starting line, it's your turn to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our countries very best, your turn to show the nation what you've got."
Jean urged the athletes to compete hard, but always with good sportsmanship.
"A fraction of a second can decide the outcome of a competition, but please remember the value of an athlete is not measured solely by result, but also by honour and dignity in defeat as in victory," Jean said.
The athletes marched in with an array of colours, some of the Newfoundland athletes donning bright yellow fisherman hats.
The largest cheer was saved for the athletes from P.E.I., who received a standing ovation and high-fives from Premier Robert Ghiz. P.E.I. wrestler Veronica Reese lit the Canada Games cauldron.
Moyse, who was born in Summerside, competed in track in the Canada Games before going on to make both the Canadian rugby and bobsled teams. She told the athletes the hard work that went into their sports will pay off down the road.
"For some of you this may be the pinnacle of your athletic career, but for some of you years down the road this may seem like the beginning," Moyse said. "For all of you, the Canada Games are a stepping stone to your future, the dedication and hard work you put into actually getting here is actually going to help you within sport but beyond sport.
"These are your Games, make what you want of them, make yourself proud."
Perennial powerhouse Ontario, with 361 athletes, should be the team to beat once again. Ontario is the defending Summer Games champion, and has won the Canada Games Flag as the top team in 17 of the past 21 Games.
Nunavut is the smallest team with just five athletes -- all wrestlers.
Summerside is hosting Week 1 athletes, while the Games move to Charlottetown for Week 2, but the venues are dotted across the province, from Alberton in the west, one of the softball sites, to Souris, nearly 220 kilometres to the east, which will host some of the soccer games.