Touby: Second-Rate Olympics R Us

By Frank Touby –

Now, from the clowns at city hall, a new circus! Presenting… Olympics Lite! (Otherwise known as the Pan American Games.) What better way to take a broom to that feeling of less-than-world-class than to sweep up in 2015 where 1999 host Winnipeg left off?

Ringmaster David Miller has whipped his council to spend $49.5 million of our taxes, fees and fines. Of that, $37.5 million (or 75%) is to contribute to cooling off gangbangers in a new University of Toronto swimming pool near at-risk neighbourhoods in the east end. At least that’s the spin from Miller’s hefty propaganda machine that has replaced the freedom-of-information ease the public once enjoyed before the mayor sovietized the city’s information regime.

For example, the arrogant Miller refuses to let taxpayers know how much we pay 3,900 non-union executives on the city payroll. He’s every bit as power crazed in office as his federal soul mate, Stephen Harper.

Among the facilities the Pan Am Games money is supposed fund would be a University of Toronto swimming pool and accoutrements. Such things are termed “legacies,” meaning they would be something of value left behind after the event for the use of Toronto as a whole. Of course that pool would be on the university property and U of T isn’t a city facility. So why should Toronto taxpayers build the university’s infrastructure when our own is crumbling around us?

Remember Montreal’s expensive legacy palace especially built for bike races during the 1976 Olympics? It was torn down 15 years later, so bye-bye overpriced legacy. Toronto, too, would have to build a single-purpose velodrome for bike racers. Any bets on how long before it becomes a condo?

Montreal had the real thing, The Olympics, and the world was truly tuned in. Yet that city lost millions of dollars and it took its taxpayers seemingly forever to pay off its debts. Aside from some long-since-lost civic pride that mainly benefited a few politicians, it’s debatable the city won anything from hosting the Olympics. It already had name recognition as a major Canadian city.

When Winnipeg had its second PanAm Games (its first was in 1967), TV coverage was thin and top athletes stayed away in droves. Was it because the games were in Winnipeg? Or was it because the games aren’t the Olympics. (In part, it was because many athletes were more interested in working in pro sports in Europe, which were going on simultaneously.)

But the greatest likelihood is that the PanAm Games, despite the obvious virtue of being a limited international sports competition with entertainment value and capable of generating tons of news coverage, just isn’t a first-rate event. So any news coverage is unlikely to resonate in the leading world cities that beget tourism. Not to detract from Winnipeg, but the fact Canada’s inland Prairie burg was the previous Canadian venue doesn’t contrast well with the fact that Toronto is pinning its hopes on beating out third-world Latin American contenders.

Recognize it or not, Toronto’s naval-gazing lust for world-class status has been fulfilled all along. Ask anyone in the world what cities are linked with what countries, and Toronto will always come up on top as the leading Canadian city. Ask anyone in the world in what foreign city he or she has relatives, and a huge number will say Toronto.

For Winnipeg, landing the PanAm Games was a coup. It put the prairie city on the map in Latin America. Sort of like a far-north stretch of the Pampas. It also boosted civic pride in the Manitoba city. But it cost taxpayers money.

Toronto lacks the hotel facilities of some smaller cities such as San Diego and New Orleans, which draw large conventions and can handle those crowds. We’re not a frontline convention city. We can get there, but we’re not there yet and the PanAm Games are unlikely to contribute to construction of more hotel rooms and certainly won’t influence the provision of convention space.

They’ll cost us lots of money to erect new athletic facilities and upgrade some existing ones. Because some facilities are limited special purpose, like a velodrome, not all the new facilities are likely to provide measurable benefits to the city after the event.

American TV networks didn’t broadcast the Winnipeg games. Would a Toronto venue make any difference to them? Why should it?

Toronto city council has been led by the mayor into backing an extraordinary expense in the name of stimulating the economy and providing infrastructure. In rosy terms, Miller promised: “Bringing a major international event to the Toronto region will boost our economy, enhance our global profile and help the city improve services in priority neighbourhoods sooner so everyone can benefit and prosper.”

But we have to ask who will really benefit from such massive expenditures? Is it truly the public and the small businesses, some hotels and restaurants, or the same old cabal of Toronto insiders who still have access to the back door at city hall, despite Miller’s pre-election pledge to close that door?

From the first swoop instead of sweep of his vaunted broom after his election, up to this latest announcement, Miller has been a disappointment and a breaker of promises. Rather than waste our money on a dicey circus, he could instead use that $49.5 million to fix the recreational facilities the city lets deteriorate; he could build and maintain ice rinks, ball courts and fields in poorly served areas along with other needed infrastructure.

There’s no glory in that. Perhaps he looks to the Wikipedia entry about the effect the 1999 PanAm Games had: “Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray became nationally well known as a result of the Games and thanks to extensive coverage by the CBC.”