The Pan Am Games have unlocked billions in government spending for sport facilities, an airport rail link and a new Toronto neighbourhood.
In two years, 7,500 athletes will descend on Toronto for the Pan American Games but the focus is already on what happens when everyone goes home.
That’s because hosting the Pan Ams is about much more than just sport.
Athletes love the experience of competing in a multi-sport Games but what an event of this size does for everyone else is provide a way to unlock government money for everything from sports facilities to an airport rail link.
As head of TO2015, Ian Troop’s official job is to deliver an on-time, on-budget Games. But he’s also expected to deliver an event that excites Ontarians and sets the table for potential future bids.
“Our job is to prime the pump, do a really good job so people understand what this means when it’s done well and there’s some appetite to do something more. Whether that’s the Olympics or a World Expo, I don’t know,” Troop said.
The Pan Am Games are routinely criticized for not being a sporting event or spectacle on par with the Olympics. But Troop is having none of that.
“We’re not the Olympics and TIFF is not Cannes. It doesn’t mean TIFF isn’t any good,” said Troop, referring to the Toronto International Film Festival and the more prestigious French film festival.
“TIFF is genuine and accessible and very successful and the artists like to come here because of that. And that’s a great analogy for us.”
What he means is that without the pomp of the Olympic rings, the Pan Am Games allow a more personal experience between athlete and spectator, and, most important of all, provide sporting facilities and infrastructure that will have broad community use without breaking the bank.
That’s the plan, anyway.
“We haven’t had anything like this in Ontario in our human memory. The British Empire Games in 1930 is a long time ago for most of us,” Troop said.
Those Games, the precursor to the Commonwealth Games, were held in Hamilton. There were 400 athletes from 11 countries, including Newfoundland, which wasn’t part of Canada yet. So, as comparisons go for the challenge ahead it’s a pretty useless one.
In addition to the athletes, the 2015 Pan Am Games will bring thousands of coaches, officials and VIPs from 41 countries to 32 venues from Oshawa to Welland. Throw in the 1.2 million ticketed spectators organizers expect and that’s a lot of people over a lot of territory and a lot that can go wrong.
“There’s the hope of what the Games can be but there’s this fear of what it could end up being,” Troop said, acknowledging public sentiment.
But at least one of the Games’ goals has already succeeded.
There’s a $456 million rail link from Union station to Pearson airport, talked about fruitlessly for decades and now scheduled to be finished in time for the Games.
The $514 million athletes’ village was a toxic wasteland in the middle of Toronto. The West Don Lands were purchased by the province decades ago but redevelopment never got off the ground. Now, it’s cleaned up, flood protected and well on its way to being a new neighbourhood of condos, affordable rentals and student housing with parks and a community centre.
Building the athletes’ village is the thing that “bedevils” every Olympics or Pan Am Games, said David Peterson, who led the successful Pan Am bid in 2009. He also purchased the West Don Lands when he was Ontario’s premier 30 years ago.
“We were lucky we had this piece of property that was right strategically where the city needed development,” Peterson said. “It’s going to do for the east end of the city what the Skydome did for the west end, in driving development.”
Building needed infrastructure – well beyond sport facilities – and spreading the expense more broadly through municipal, provincial and federal budgets, is one of the biggest reasons why cities vie to host multi-sport events.
It provides the deadline and “impetus to do something you know you want to do anyway,” Troop said.
“Our job is to get people seeing the opportunity in a hopeful and optimistic way but also be realistic enough that we’re not blinded to the risks and how we want to manage those.”
He’s talking about the twin scourges of big projects: delays and cost overruns.
But the sports venues covered under TO2015’s $1.4 billion budget “are truly on schedule and under budget,” he said.
The biggest one, the aquatics centre and field house at the University of Toronto Scarborough, will be finished next summer. Rental agreements with the Rogers Centre, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, should be signed by summer’s end, Troop said.
TO2015 has already signed sponsorship deals for $75.6 million of the $102 million they are required to raise, according to its audited financial statements.
“We’re right where we need to be at this point with a lot of work ahead,” Troop said.
For one, they have to sell $38 million worth of tickets. And there is the enormous challenge of keeping security costs from hitting the stratosphere, which they have a tendency to do as anyone who lived through the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto knows all to well.
It’s possible to deliver the Games without cost overruns so long as the budget drives the plan and not the other way around, Troop said. More often, “scope drives the budget and that gets you into trouble unless you’re a government that doesn’t really care.”
The province of Ontario – the government on the hook for cost overruns – definitely does care.
That’s why so much has already changed from the 2009 bid book.
The number of venues has dropped from 51 to 32 with more clustering of events in one location. Mississauga’s Hersey Centre, for example, will host wrestling, judo, karate and taekwondo. The original plan had these combative sports at three different locations.
Still, it’s not exactly walking distance from the athletes’ village at Front St. and Bayview Ave. to the swimming and diving at U of T Scarborough or track and field at York University. That’s because venues were designed and placed for their post-Games use, Troop said.
“We all talk about how we don’t want white elephants and everyone cites Montreal as being one of those problems. They had a big Olympic park where they built a lot of static buildings and they didn’t think about trying to partner with owners who would have purposes well beyond the Games,” he said.
The velodrome in Milton, for example, will become home to the national cycling team, which currently trains in the U.S., and will house sports courts to provide much-needed recreation space for the growing community.
Troop was at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and hopes “our Games give people a taste of that feeling of pride and patriotism.”
He’ll call the whole 2015 Pan Am enterprise a success if “after our Games are over people say, ‘Wow, that was really good … what’s next?’”