Sports

Toronto Prepares for Summer Olympics Lite

The London Olympics are just six weeks away. Besides track and field, swimming, and gymnastics, there's another traditional Olympic event taking place in London — debates about whether the costs and hassles were all worth it.

Here in North America, another city is busy preparing for its own Summer Games — Toronto will host the Pan American Games in three years. Some 10,000 athletes from 41 western hemisphere countries will attend the Pan and Parapan American Games; the Pan Am Games will have more than three times as many athletes as Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics.

And just like in London, there's plenty of heated discussion in Toronto about the costs associated with putting on a major international sporting event. Critics abound, arguing that $1.4 billion CAD in taxpayer money is too high a price.

But the boosters and people behind the Pan Am Games have little doubt about the value that the Games will bring for Toronto. Take the case of the future athletes' village, just east of downtown Toronto. Right now, it's a bunch of dirt and trucks.

"This was a mixed bag of industrial uses, brickworks, tanneries, you name it, it was here. It was just really a very derelict industrial area that we had to clean off," said John Campbell, president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, an organization tasked with revitalizing the city's shoreline.

Campbell said they had long planned condos and townhouses here, but there's nothing like a deadline to get things going.

"And so the Games really are coming in as a catalyst to move it forward. We were on our way to doing it, but at a slower rate. So it's really advanced the development substantially. And that of course helps other development around because the whole activity breeds more activity."

For example, Toronto is building a rail line to connect the airport to downtown, as well as new stadiums, fields, and aquatic centers.

The opening and closing ceremonies will take place in downtown Toronto where the Blue Jays play baseball. I met Charles Sousa outside the stadium before a ballgame. He's the Ontario provincial lawmaker responsible for overseeing the Pan Am Games.

"This is going to be a huge economic boost to the city and to the region," said Sousa. "We are anticipating over 15,000 new jobs just by the creation of some of the venues. And it's enabling us to have infrastructure close at home so that we can continue to build on our great city."

He adds that Toronto also gets to host some of the world's greatest athletes for two weeks.

Inside the stadium, I watched the Blue Jays game with Paul Henderson, a past Olympian in sailing and former member of the International Olympic Committee. He led Toronto's failed bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics. When that didn't pan out, he turned his attention to the Pan Am Games.

"I was the guy who had the idea to bring the Games here because I wanted to get facilities for amateur sport, for Olympic sport, in this region because we don't have many. So the way to get them is to go and get one of these Games because it makes the politicians deliver. They have to be ready on that Friday night in 2015."

Henderson is glad the new facilities are finally getting built, but is worried about the way it's happening. He said event organizers are too focused on a two-week event that will come and go.

For example, Henderson asks: Why are they building a massive aquatics center with two Olympic-sized swimming pools and 3,200 permanent seats? He says large swimming stadiums don't make sense.

"They found that in Beijing, they can't use it. In most swimming competitions, you can only get 2,000 people to come at any time."

Henderson added that that the aquatic center is 30-minute ride from Toronto's city center, without traffic. And there's no easy way to get there on public transportation. He advocated for a smaller swimming venue closer to downtown with more temporary seating.

I drove out to the future aquatic center, right now a hole in the ground, with Charles Smedmor — chartered accountant, certified fraud examiner, and self-styled government watchdog.

Smedmor questions why taxpayers are spending more than a billion dollars for what he calls a second-rate event.

"It's not going to much more than a little addendum at the end of the sports broadcast on the evening news."

Smedmor has run the numbers and doesn't like what he's seeing. Most Olympics end up being money losers. But they sell a lot of tickets, broadcast rights, and sponsorships along the way to recoup costs. And sometimes, they even make money.

Smedmor said that won't be happening in Toronto.

"We're spending $1.4 billion, officially, for something that's only going to have gate of $146 million. And I can't think of any Broadway producer who puts on a show where you're only going to be taking in 10 percent of what you spend at the box office."

Smedmor said the event organizers aren't being transparent or realistic about costs. For example, he argued that the Pan Am Games don't need an indoor cycling track, called a velodrome, but that a far less costly outdoor track would do just fine.

But Ian Troop defends the large infrastructure projects. He's the CEO of Toronto 2015, the group responsible for putting on the Pan Am Games. Troop said he's fully committed to delivering the Games on time, on budget.

And Troop said structures like the velodrome are being built for versatility beyond the Games.

"This is a 250-meter track, so the inside of this becomes a wonderful opportunity for a community center. It can fit three or four basketball courts, three-quarters of a soccer pitch as well. And it's that kind of versatility which ensures you have revenue streams going in there. You've got users using the thing, and it's got high relevance for that community after the Games are over. And that's what we're trying to do, and the velodrome is a great example of that."

Troop adds that an indoor cycling track can attract future international sporting events. And, Canadian cyclists will be able to train in Toronto year-round, rather than going down to California to train as many currently do.

And while the Pan Am Games aren't the Olympics, many in Toronto see them as a tryout, of sorts. They look to the case of Rio de Janeiro — that city hosted the Pan Am Games in 2007. Two years later, they were awarded the grand prize, the Summer Olympics for 2016.

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