The following is a guest post by veteran journalist Diane Brady:
As a mega sports competition, the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games felt hobbled from the start. Now taking over the Greater Toronto Area, from July 10-26 for the Pan Am Games and then from Aug. 10-17 for the Parapan Am games, it’s a competition for athletes from North and South America, hosted by a city that’s increasingly trying to look East and West.
The Pan Am name lacks the sentimental pull of the Commonwealth Games for Canadians, or the top-dog status of an Olympics. Its quirky 36-sport menu includes water skiing and roller figure skating—pursuits more associated with summer fun than global competition. The lure of other events has wooed away hometown favorites like golfer Brooke Henderson and swimmer Missy Henderson, whose parents are from Canada. That’s meant more time for media to focus on the Games’ record-setting C$2.5 billion price tag, empty hotel rooms, and 146 miles of temporary high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes that have sent Toronto’s long-suffering drivers screaming and scheming to avoid. [While Mayor John Tory asked residents to shed their old Toronto mentality and have a party, predecessor Rob Ford shared tips on how to illegally using those special HOV lanes, telling reporters “you’ve got to watch the cops over your shoulders, just a little bob and weave.”]
Despite such drama, the Pan Am Games could turn out to be a major boon for the city of Toronto’s brand. The payoff isn’t so much the prestige of the Games as the infrastructure they leave behind. Torontonians won’t get the kind of big-ticket stadium that famously burdened their brethren in Montreal after the 1976 Olympics. Much of the sports-related investment, from a new velodrome to an aquatic center, is scattered throughout the greater Toronto region. Instead, Pan Am has been a catalyst in driving much-needed improvements to the city’s transportation network, from bike paths to a new direct rail link between Pearson International Airport and the Union Station rail hub downtown. For a city struggling with clogged highway arteries and a paltry public transit network, that’s a key priority for burnishing its image as a world-class destination. So, too, is a new pedestrian tunnel at Porter Airlines’ home base at the downtown Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island, which is slated to open this summer.
The Pan Am/Parapan Am Games also gave Toronto a push to accelerate the overhaul of its waterfront industrial property, transforming older sites including an 80-acre area near the Don River into a CIBC-sponsored athlete’s village that could become a vital new neighborhood. Hamilton and Niagara have teamed up to showcase their own economic development and assets to potential foreign investors. As former Ontario Premier and Pan Am Games boss David Peterson told business and political leaders at a special gathering of the International Economic Forum of the Americas (IEFA) in Toronto last week, “this is an effort backed by all three levels of government and 14 municipalities” that see it as an opportunity to showcase their offerings to the world. IEFA chief Nicholas Rémillard moved the timing of his annual Toronto Global Forum for a similar reason, saying he’s “never seen anything that has the power to do good like the power of sport.”
Of course, the power of publicity can run both ways. Global coverage of the Pan Am Games has logically focused less on Toronto’s new assets than on the performances of the athletes themselves. Unlike Seoul in the 1988 Olympics or even Rio during the FIFA World Cup, Toronto isn’t an undiscovered gem to many journalists. The Economist already ranked it the world’s safest city earlier this year and many have been there or read about it for other reasons. Ian Austen of The New York Times did turn his attention to Toronto on the eve of the Games, unleashing angry critics with a headline that claimed “In an Indifferent Toronto, the Pan-Am Games Land With a Thud.”
With ho-hum ticket sales, a curious mascot named PACHI and empty HOV lanes, it’s an easy case to make. But even the event’s biggest supporters seem less concerned with the drawing power of dressage than what happens after everyone goes home. David Peterson, for one, is already hinting at an Olympic bid. If the Games help Toronto become a more compelling city to navigate and invest in, that might pale next to bigger benefits for the Toronto brand.