By ERROL TOWNSHEND
Toronto has every right to beat its chest and blow its trumpet over its successful bid to win the 2015 PanAm Games. It will go some way to erasing our image as the City of Losers (Maple Leafs, Argos, Raptors, Blue Jays, Olympics bid). It will also give all three levels of government a pretext for building much needed sports facilities and low-cost housing, areas where there has been little activity in ages. It also brings into sharp focus the spurious arguments raised not so long ago that we didn’t have the funds to maintain swimming pools in city schools.
But, while we congratulate Premier Dalton McGuinty and former premier David Peterson and his team for a job well done, there are challenges which must be met if the Games are to be a success.
What if we spend billions to stage these PanAm Games and nobody came?
Regional Games, such as the Central American and Caribbean Games, the Commonwealth Games and the PanAms, have been seriously devalued in recent years and have lost their allure. This is largely because the premier sport — track and field — has an international federation (IAAF) that has been working against the success of these Games. When the PanAms were launched in Buenos Aires in 1951, and for many years thereafter, there were no Golden League track meets where the Usain Bolts of the track could earn million-dollar paychecks. It was an honour to represent one’s country in these international Games. That’s no longer the case.
Nowadays, while the IAAF will suspend its lucrative meets for a short period around the time of the Olympics so as not to distract from the world’s premier track and field event, that body has not done the same for regional Games. As a result, many of the top athletes have simply not bothered showing up for regional Games. Next year, the Commonwealth Games take place in New Delhi. The event won’t be held during the summer months when the top athletes are earning their fat pay cheques running all over Europe, but at the end of the season. Many of them are likely to miss New Delhi, claiming burnout.
Unless the Toronto organizers begin now to mount the same kind of campaign that was initiated to win the bid over Lima and Bogota, the same fate could befall the 2015 event. The IAAF must be persuaded to give the Toronto event a break by ensuring there is a sufficient window where no competing meets are held. They must also mount a campaign to convince the major track and field countries, such as the U.S. and Jamaica, to send their top athletes. This is not a campaign that can be successfully launched at the last minute. We must start now.
The other challenge, which is perhaps even more daunting, is to use these PanAms not just as a pretext for building housing and sports facilities, but as an incentive for major national sports federations to wake up and prepare competitors who can mount the podium. This is currently being done for the Vancouver Winter Olympics and was done, with limited success, for the Beijing Olympics. But nobody bothered doing this for the Winnipeg PanAms in 1999. The entire emphasis was on organizing the event. Canadian track and field has gone into the pits since the retirement of Donovan Bailey and Co. and there appears no immediate prospect of resurrection. It’s the same story in soccer. Swimming/diving may be the only major summer sport where Canada has a chance to dominate in 2015. We all recall the embarrassment of the 1976 Montreal Olympics where Greg Joy’s silver medal in high jump was the best we could do after all the effort and millions spent on staging that event. If we aren’t pro-active, it could happen again.
We can’t afford that. But it will happen if all the focus is on organizing the PanAms and building facilities. Fans from outside Canada and even within Canada won’t be turned on to an event where the stars don’t show up and Canada doesn’t go into the event with any prospects of hearing the national anthem as Canadians mount the podium.