About a month before the Pan Am Games began in Toronto, local radio stations saturated the airwaves with cryptic warnings for commuters: start carpooling, find alternative routes to work, or, even better, just stay home. The tourists are coming. An estimated 250,000 of them.
To make their ride smoother, temporary high-occupancy vehicle lanes, requiring three or more passengers, were installed in the main arteries of the city. Some locals attempted to bypass this by buckling mannequins into their seats, while the former mayor publicly declared that an easier solution was to simply ignore the new rules.
With ticket sales lagging, hotels sitting half empty, and a wave of apathy washing over the city, the spike in congestion became the nail from which Pan Am detractors could, temporarily, hang their hats. Other, longer sustained huffiness stemmed from the fact that these Games, the most expensive Pan Am ever at $2.5 billion, and the largest athletic event ever hosted in Canada, were an expense and inconvenience hoisted onto the shoulders of Ontario residents without their consultation. Those complaints arrived loudly and in unison: We didn’t ask for this.
Included in that refrain are tens of thousands of Toronto residents, some of the city’s most marginalized and vulnerable populations, that will, as history has continually demonstrated, likely feel the effects of these games in a manner that’s far more permanent and damaging than the headache brought on by extra gridlock.
When Ontario secured the Pan Am Games in 2009, Ian Troop, then-CEO of the organizing committee, was earning a salary of more than half a million dollars. Despite the exorbitant cost of hosting the games, Troop deemed it necessary to also ding the public for his parking fees and other expenses, such as a $1.89 cup of tea. He was eventually fired and, on his way out, handed a $500,000 severance package.
In his place stepped Saad Rafi, earning a more modest salary at $430,000. Now that the Games have concluded, he’s due for a 100-percent bonus. Another $5.7 million in bonuses will be distributed to 53 of his fellow executives, a reduction of the original bonus budget, which was tabled at $7 million.
This is a symptom of sports mega-events. They are trumpeted as economic juggernauts for their host regions but the money that is generated often winds up in the pockets of a select few: organizers, contractors, land owners, developers.
In Toronto, downtown businesses are struggling to reach their normal summer numbers. The influx of tourists has kept regular customers at home, while the tourists themselves don’t appear eager to sink more money into the local economy. In response, some business owners are cutting down staff hours and even laying off employees to compensate for the lost earnings.
Long-term, things aren’t looking much better. After Vancouver hosted the 2010 Olympics, an impact study conducted by the International Olympic Committee and the University of British Columbia found no noticeable long-term increase in the tourism or economic performance of the city.
When Ontario made the original bid for the Games, it touted an economic impact analysis that claimed the event would create 28,000 jobs and inject nearly $4 billion into the economy. That report isn't public and the Pan Am Committee is keeping it closely guarded. Anyone wanting to view a copy will need to file a Freedom of Information request.
Again, this is par for the course for mega-events. Feasibility studies, including environmental and social impact analyses, tend to be ad hoc. While those results are trotted out, popular approval of mega-events is generally limited to things like superficial opinion polls. The democratic process skirted, the public is left to take on the economic risk.
Once the financials are taken care of, the host cities need to be cleaned up, as was, and continues to be, the case in Toronto. John Clarke, the founder of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, says heavy-handed policing is one of the most immediate and obvious aspects of the Pan Am Games, specifically in Toronto’s east end, where taxpayers footed the bill for the construction of a $205 million aquatics facility.
“There’s a desire to clear the streets of people not deemed part of the party ahead of time, taking on visually poor and homeless people,” Clarke says. “We’re seeing a great deal of that going on with lots of reports of stepped up policing.” There are also reports that undercover police officers have been working to disrupt protests, including infiltrating an anti-mining group in a lead up to the Games.
To be clear, there have also been some positives brought on by Pan Am. Toronto now has a rail link from its airport to the downtown core, and the glistening athletes’ village has transformed what was formerly industrial wasteland. The plan, once the Games are complete, is to turn the village into a mix of market homes and affordable housing units, though the definition of affordable has yet to be revealed. (A similar plan in Vancouver, following the 2010 Olympics, went belly up after the developer of the 1,100-unit athletes’ village stopped payment on its construction loan. The city lost nearly $300 million in the process.)
There is also a new $45 million stadium in Toronto’s north end, as well as facilities in the neighboring cities of Hamilton, Milton, and Markham. Down the road, some of these facilities will receive continued use; others, like the $56 million velodrome installed in Milton, face a more questionable future.
That track, built with spruce imported from Russia, was allocated to Milton after the proposal was rejected by Hamilton and Markham. They didn’t want it. Turns out that could be their loss. Following the 1976 Olympics, Montreal turned its velodrome into a biodome, which now houses replicas of four ecosystems—and who doesn't love penguins?
In Toronto, where the housing waiting list stands at nearly 170,000 people, and tens of thousands are relying on the food bank, and CAMH, the largest mental health and addictions research facility in the country, is canvassing door to door to keep its lights on, and the homeless shelters are routinely above a 90-percent occupancy rate, Clarke believes some of the Pan Am’s $2.5 billion should have been allocated for things other than temperature-regulated bike tracks.
“It’s an absolutely obscene amount of money when you think about the incredible needs that exist in this city,” Clarke says. The intention, he believes, is to not only allow shelters to close but to re-located them to the fringes of the city, to push marginalized populations out of the central area and transform it into a “lavish showpiece with enclaves of suburban poverty surrounding it.”
According to Clarke, the Pan Am Games isn’t just a waste of money without purpose, but a strong-arm tactic for increased development that will induce and facilitate further gentrification and displacement within the city. The studies agree with that premise. Sports mega-events are one of the most powerful forces that exist when it comes to hastening urban revitalization.
“It’s fairly clear to us that it’s going to further fuel the condo boom, the pushing out of services in low-income neighborhoods, and the closing down of low-income housing stock,” Clarke says. “At the end of the day there’s an alleged social dividend to this but it truly is quite divisory, especially in the areas of housing.”
This, unfortunately, isn’t anything new. The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, an independent non-profit human rights organization based in Geneva, found that mega-events have been characterized by negative housing impacts for decades.
Whether residents are displaced or forcibly evicted, the gentrification targets, disproportionately, “low income earners, ethnic minorities, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, street vendors, sex workers, migrants, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable groups.” The report found that thousands of families were evicted or re-located during Olympic Games in Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney, while millions faced displacement following the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
This past April, the Hope Shelter, a 124-bed facility in downtown Toronto was shut down. No replacement has opened since. The homeless shelters in the city are consistently filled, to the point that management is both dangerous and difficult. “They just continue to cram people into these disgusting warehouses while there’s money for this circus, which, to us, is just deeply offensive,” Clarke says.
As the Games have ticked by, on the surface, things have gotten better. Noisy protestors were dealt with swiftly, ticket sales eventually picked up, Canada won a baseball game, and Toronto, always eager to remind everyone it’s a world-class city, now has more fodder for that conversation. The question, $2.5 billion later, is: Will any of it be worth it?
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.