If we want the Olympics, our time is now,
If we want the Olympic Games, it’s time to seize the moment
On a hot evening in July 2001, I was in Beijing when that city was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Spontaneously, tens of thousands of Chinese poured into the streets to celebrate, singing and dancing and just happily strolling about into the wee hours of the morning.
They were so proud and so grateful.
It was the beginning of a great nation’s coming-out party.
And yes, the fix had been in with the International Olympic Committee. They always intended to bestow those Games on the Middle Kingdom, even if Beijing’s host bid was not as meritorious as the package put forward by Toronto, which came in second when the votes were counted in Moscow.
For the second time, T.O. had come a cropper.
From the other side of the planet, I had no idea how the news was being received back home. Doubtless there was massive disappointment. Yet I suspected that, had Toronto been anointed by the IOC, there would have been immediate protests and years of grumbling ahead.
Public objections had gone a long way towards scuttling Toronto’s previous formal tender for the 1996 Summer Olympics which, regrettably, were invested on Atlanta – The Coca Cola Games. Worst Games Ever, even for the shamelessly corrupt and greedy IOC, as Big Corp. usurped the global shebang.
But Toronto’s bid had been effectively hamstrung and hexed by a grassroots anti-Olympic bloc led by Jack Layton and his Bread Not Circuses coalition.
Toronto didn’t get those Games, which so pleased Layton et al. Neither, though, did it get many community-oriented benefits for a city’s neediest populace – the services and enriching social programs that the resistance movement claimed would be sacrificed to an Olympics public-purse budget.
It turned out a lose-lose proposition.
Next time around, Toronto was a victim of bad timing and geopolitical pressures. Beijing was the preemptive choice, simultaneously allowing the IOC to dodge an escalating outcry over the Games’ ballooning costs. Beijing 2008 would come in on time and beautifully mounted, with no quibbling about $1.6 billion allotted for venues and infrastructure. China had all the money in the world, a dirt-cheap labour force, no unions, no fear of demonstrations, and unfettered show-off agenda.
When those Games opened, they also had fences and barricades everywhere – not to protect against terrorist attack but to prevent the citizenry from getting a close-up look at what had been accomplished. I will never forget the faces of ordinary Chinese, kids in tow, peering through wires for a distant peek at the gorgeous Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube.
The People’s Republic of China put on the least people-friendly Games in history.
These should be all lessons learned for the IOC, which endlessly finds new ways to make poor decisions – like giving scandalously disorganized Athens the Summer Games in 2004, which ultimately bankrupted Greece, pushing the country towards its current financial crisis.
But if the Lords of the Ring are watching – and they are, because IOC President Thomas Bach twice visited Toronto in the past fortnight – they will have seen that this city (and environs) staged a marvelous Pan Am Games spectacle, which came as something of a shock even to us.
Yes, the Pan Ams are a second-tier multi-games extravaganza, nowhere as unwieldy as the Olympics. Still, they ran more smoothly than other Pan Ams and Commonwealth Games I’ve covered. Crucially, they were well-attended, with upwards of a million tickets sold, and Canadian athletes did their country proud, amassing a record 217 medals, albeit sending the cream of our crop against what was often B-team competition from other nations.
But we got a taste for it, in a province which last hosted a multisports sports event in 1930 – the British Empire Games, in Hamilton.
If these Games were a springboard for Canada’s athletes heading into next year’s Olympics in Rio, so too were they a dress-rehearsal for a potential 2024 Summer Olympics bid. (As the 2007 Pan Ams in Rio teed up their successful Olympic submission.)
We are not the Toronto of 14 years ago or a quarter century ago. The public, I dare say, is charmed with the idea of hosting the Olympics, though some of that enthusiasm may quickly wear off. But there’s hardly enough time for cynicism and disapproval to set in – the deadline for officially throwing our civic hat in the 2024 Games ring is Sept. 15 .
Most of us will remember the billion-dollar money pit of Montreal 1976. Remember also, though, the $150 million legacy from the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 and the break-even outcome of Vancouver in 2010 – and all the glory of those last Olympics that can’t be measured in dollars, what they gave us as a country.
Mayor John Tory has been noncommittal when the possibility is put to him. And, indeed, Toronto’s Economic Development Committee took a pass last year on a 2024 Olympic bid, estimated to cost between $50 million and $60 million. There’s not even a city council session scheduled before the deadline where the matter might be reopened.
But that’s negative thinking and we’ve had entirely too much of that around these parts when it comes to the vision thing.
The Pan Ams imposed deadlines and discipline on Toronto – where inertia is too often the byword – in the construction of a new aquatics centre, a direct rail link between Union Station and the airport, and an athletes’ village on the waterfront.
We can do this. We can seize the moment – and the impetus it would provide for bold infrastructure and sports venue development.
The Canadian Olympic Committee officially took up the 2024 Games bid mantle on Sunday, announced by president Marcel Aubut at Canada House.
“I will work closely with the city of Toronto. There’s nothing to be done without the mayor.”
We can do this. We have the momentum. Do we, fourth largest city in North America, have the nerve? Will we cry poor in this cashstrapped province?
At least seven cities have already either filed their bid papers or indicated they intend to do so: Rome, Hamburg, Paris, Budapest, Boston, Nairobi and Casablanca.
“We can’t afford to miss this opportunity,” Aubut declared.
The slogan for Toronto’s Pan Games was: #nowornever.
Ditto Summer Olympics 2024. Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Women’s basketball gold medallist Kia Nurse carries the Canadian flag during the closing ceremony Sunday.