Opinion: Toronto's Olympic dreams could be reignited by Calgary's failure

Nov 15 2018, 7:01 pm

More than 15 years ago, Vancouver residents voted in a plebiscite to proceed with their bid to host the 2010 Winter Games. The result: 64% voted ‘Yes’ in what was one of the highest turnouts in memory at the time for a civic vote.

The same, of course, could not be said in Calgary on Tuesday when its residents decided to swing in the opposite direction. Over 304,000 people voted, but the decision was 56% ‘Against.’

The bid is now dead. The tactic by proponents of running the bid’s hopes and dreams on any remaining nostalgia from the 1988 Winter Games simply wasn’t enough to push the bid over the line to keep the dream alive.

olympics

Renovations to McMahon Stadium would allow the 1960-built facility to be the venue for the Calgary 2026 Winter Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies. (Calgary 2026)

As a consequence, and given the fallout, the idea of re-hosting the Olympics in Calgary will likely be put to bed for a generation.

And without any plan that provides major investment to renew the athletic facilities built more than three decades ago, many of these Olympic legacies that have defined so much of Calgary’s identity as a winter sports capital – the training grounds that have created many of Canada’s Olympians – will likely soon permanently disappear.

The International Olympic Committee’s 2026 bid process was building up to be Calgary’s Games to lose.

As a past host city, the cost of the Olympics was estimated to be lower than in recent games, given the ability to re-use much of the venues and infrastructure built for 1988. Calgary’s bid plans depicted a relatively bare-bones Olympics.

The IOC had also promised to pitch in $1.2 billion to the 2026 Games organizing committee – nearly double the amount that was provided to the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC).

canada olympic park

Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. (Shutterstock)

The Games would likely have provided Calgary, still hampered by the effects of a prolonged recession, with a much-needed morale boost, catalyst for economic activity, and an opportunity to diversify its economy beyond its oil dependency.

But for four other Canadian cities there are some upsides to Calgary’s decision to reject the Games: It has kept a real window of opportunity open for a repeat Winter Games performance by Vancouver and a sliver of a chance for a successful Summer Games bid by Toronto or a joint Winter Games bid by Quebec City and Montreal.

Summer Games dreaming in Toronto

Toronto has made two past bid attempts to host the Summer Olympics. It came in third place in the race for 1996, coming in behind the host city of Atlanta and runner-up Athens.

The city made another attempt for 2008, but it ended up being the runner-up to Beijing, the clear favourite in the bid race.

There were discussions on a possible bid for 2012, however, Vancouver winning the 2010 Games extinguished that opportunity. But perhaps the third time’s the charm for Toronto? (For what it’s worth, Istanbul has a worst bidding record, with its failed bids for the Summer Games of 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2020.)

Toronto 2008 Olympic bid logo

Toronto 2008 Olympic bid logo. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

Despite being the largest city in the country and a hub for Canadian business and culture, Toronto did not host its first major international sporting event until 2015, the Pan American Games.

While the 2015 Games were a lukewarm success, they were a helpful stepping stone for eventually hosting the Olympics.

“We heard how the Toronto 2015 Games achieved broad city and region building aims through the construction and upgrading of much-needed sport infrastructure and the creation of a new mixed-income community in the West Don Lands,” reads the report.

“In the latter case, the community development plans had long been in the works; the Games simply provided a rationale to finally get them done at least a decade earlier than would have occurred on their own. Although community representatives recognize that international event hosting will not be a cure-all for our major city building needs, they expect major events to leave a worthwhile and beneficial legacy.”

Union Pearson Express UP Express

The UP Express station in downtown Toronto. The express train service between the city centre and Toronto Pearson International Airport opened in time for the 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

Looking to the future, in 2016, the City of Toronto released a report — Bringing The World To Toronto – that identified international hosting event opportunities and steps forward for creating the infrastructure and resources to pursue future events.

It addressed the pitfalls of the previous uncoordinated and reactionary processes that contributed to the failure to launch an Expo, Commonwealth Games, or another Olympic bid.

“Because these events arise only periodically (and often unpredictably) there has not been much reason to develop a consistent, methodical approach to evaluation or planning that carries forward from one event to the next,” reads the report.

“As a result, major event planning has often been undertaken with a significant degree of uncertainty, a lack of sufficient early coordination and limited resolve from all partners. It’s not surprising then that, as we’ve seen with some unsuccessful or unrealized bids in the past, they failed to capture full public support (as in the case of the 2008 Olympic bid) or necessary commitment from a government partner (for the 2015 World Expo).”

Nathan Phillips Square Toronto Sign

Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall during the 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

City Council adopted the report’s proactive recommendations in June 2016, which urged the municipal government to adopt a long-term policy for hosting major international events, identifying dedicated financial and city staff resources for bidding and hosting activity, and work collaboratively with the Ontario government’s Ministry of Tourism, Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation, Tourism Toronto, and other relevant regional organizations.

“By putting these modest, reliable resources in place, the city will be better able to take a deliberate and proactive approach to major event hosting activity,” the report continues.

“It is also our view that by signalling this support, the city will be in a position to unlock support from others with a stake in major events – including governmental, civic and corporate partners. If the city lays the groundwork for bidding and promotional activity, this will send a strong signal to other partners that may see the value of international events but are unsure about how to maximize and protect their investment.”

York Lions Stadium Toronto

York Lions Stadium at Toronto’s York University campus. The stadium was built for the athletics events of the 2015 Pan American Games. It seated 12,500 people during the Games, with 3,000 permanent seats and the remaining as temporary seats. (Harvey K / Flickr)

Another recommendation was the need for intergovernmental cooperation and support that provides a predictable model to support events held in Ontario.

This was evident with the Calgary 2026 bid, which was hampered by a lack of intergovernmental cooperation and the inability of various levels of governments to hammer a funding deal well in advance of the plebiscite campaign. The Calgary Bid Committee and other proponents were disorganized and in disarray in the final weeks leading up to the public vote.

“We recognize that before making any commitments, all partners need to do their due diligence and evaluate the merits and value of investment in a hosting opportunity,” the report adds.

“And this work takes some time. So we are not advocating that government partners move too quickly or cut corners. But the current uncertainty around process and timing can endanger even the most thoroughly developed hosting concept.”

It remains to be seen whether this direction towards a new framework in how Toronto pursues events will lead to an Olympic bid.

Toronto 2008

The Toronto 2008 bid envisioned transforming the Port Lands into an Olympic Park with an 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, Aquatic Centre, Hockey Stadium, Archery Centre, Shooting Centre, and venue for rowing, canoe, and kayak. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

While the Pan American Games provided many positive legacies, many of the venues built for the Games cannot be reused for the Summer Games – they are far too small for the Summer Games, even under the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 standards of encouraging minimalism and conservation.

For instance, the new aquatic centre at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, one of the most expensive venue investments for the 2015 Games, is too small for even the IOC’s new scaled-down requirements.

As for what a Summer Games in Toronto could look like, it will likely be quite different than what was proposed in the 2008 bid.

Much of the last Olympic bid plan, created about two decades ago, envisioned transforming industrial lands on the downtown waterfront, West Don Lands, Lower Don Lands, and Port Lands into a highly centralized and compact Olympic Waterfront venue plan. However, many of these sites are no longer available due to new and planned major redevelopments.

Toronto Olympic Waterfront Plan

Toronto Olympic Waterfront Plan for the 2008 bid. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

Existing venues that were proposed to be used for 2008 would also now likely require significant renovations to be competition-ready for the earliest opportunity to host the Summer Games in 2030.

Nevertheless, if there is ever to be another Summer Games in Canada, Toronto would be the only option — the only Canadian city with the economic capacity and infrastructure to host the event and comfortably absorb all the requirements and demands that come along with the duties. To a lesser extent than Vancouver, the city would also need to properly address and resolve its growing housing affordability issues in order to win over public opinion on pursuing the Olympics.

To date, Toronto’s closest encounter with the Olympics is its short-lived Olympic Spirit attraction within a purpose-built building next to Dundas Square, now home to the studios for CityTV and Omni TV. But it would be best practice to build any $32-million Olympic museum in Toronto after the city has established a historic connection to the Olympic Movement.

CN Tower fireworks

Fireworks are launched off the CN Tower as part of the Closing Ceremony for the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

Ultimately, Calgary’s failure to seek public support shows nostalgia alone is not enough: There needs to be a real vision –  ‘new’ legacies, both tangible and intangible, must also be produced.

Calgary dropping out of the running also opens up the future for potential bids by both Montreal and Vancouver.

Check out Vancouver’s chances of a future bid here.

Check out Montreal’s chances of a future bid here.

See also