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Amateur sportsCan Toronto be a worthy Pan Am host?

Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011 | 08:48 AM

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The logo for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. (Canadian Press) The logo for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

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For the 2011 Pan American sports extravaganza in Guadalajara, Mexico, it's almost "game over."

That means it's "game on" for the 17th Pan American Games to be held in several southern Ontario communities, including Toronto, in the summer of 2015.


It's a big job given the nature of the city and its relationship with sport.


For the 2011 Pan American Games sports extravaganza in Guadalajara, Mexico, it's almost "game over."

That means it's "game on" for the 17th Pan American Games, to be held in several southern Ontario communities, including Toronto, in the summer of 2015.

Survey says a significant number of folks, particularly Torontonians, aren't quite sure what the Pan Am Games are or even that their city will soon be the host.

"We've got our work cut out for us," admits Ian Troop, the CEO of the TO2015 organizing committee. "To build awareness of what the Pan Am Games are and why they're important and why people should care."

It's a big job given the nature of the city and its relationship with sport.    

While the affection consumers in Toronto have for male-dominated, North American-based professional games, particularly the hockey Leafs, cannot be questioned. The rest is open for debate.

Worrisome is the tenuous hold professional soccer seems to have in Toronto. After an initial bonanza, TFC's honeymoon with its wildly enthusiastic supporters is drawing to a close. Add to that the sagging fortunes of the CFL Argonauts as football fanatics chase the Buffalo Bills and the coveted NFL.

But here's the bottom line: Ontario and Toronto lag behind the rest of the country in terms of a commitment made to a wide variety of high performance sport.

Can Pan Ams bring change?

The last time this area hosted a major multi-sport Games was more than 80 years ago when Hamilton staged the first British Empire Games (now known as the Commonwealth Games). Toronto has never hosted the world track and field championships as Edmonton has. Nor has it attempted the world aquatics championships. Montreal did that in 2005. There have been no world championship events of any consequence in Toronto for decades. Not in figure skating or curling or gymnastics or even hockey.

So what is it about Toronto?

Why is it that most of the elite Canadian athletes in most sports, both winter and summer, train in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Montreal, or for that matter the United States?      

Maybe it's because there are very few appropriate facilities for high performance sport in Ontario. Nothing much has been built in the country's most populous province that would keep a world-class athlete around.

The Pan American Games are meant to change that.  

Never mind that some see Toronto 2015 and the Pan American Games process as a step in the right direction to a possible Olympic bid in the near future - a sort of paying of dues.  

Toronto has unsuccessfully chased two Olympics in the past - 1996 and 2008. On both occasions the city was overlooked because it could show little evidence that it had a track record when it came to "Olympic-style" sport. It was seen as being opportunistic ("if the Games come. then we'll build it") instead of the other way around.

The world indoor track and field championships at SkyDome in 1993 were a complete bust and a box office disaster. There was next to no buzz in spite of the fact that two of the world's best sprinters at the time were Canadians Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey.

Time for T.O. to step up

Bruce Kidd, the former Olympian and track star of the 1960s, remembers when Toronto did embrace many kinds of sport. But recently, as the Dean of the Faculty of Health and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, he had to grind out the rebuilding of Varsity Stadium, a modest-sized athletic facility in the heart of the city.

"It's going to be a long time before we get another real chance to bid for anything other than regional games," Kidd says of the Olympic red herring.

"We should invest in facilities for ourselves, for our own people and our own needs. The good thing about the Pan American Games of 2015 is that the facility plan follows that idea.

"The idea is that municipalities invest 44 per cent of the capital cost in those facilities to ensure a commitment and a long-term plan for the use of those facilities. So they won't become white elephants and they will contribute to an ongoing use for sport and physical activity."

The press has not been kind to the TO2015 organizers. Headlines have focused on struggles to locate venues and the haggling that has gone on in Hamilton over the building of both a stadium and a velodrome. These are the kinds of controversies, real and imagined, that have dominated the public discourse surrounding every multi-sport Games in every host country in recent memory.

Troop soldiers on, believing that the Pan American Games will be good for the Golden Horseshoe because of the legacy they will create for the future of sport in the area.

"At a grassroots level, the moms and dads with kids who are involved in sport, those people are excited," he says. "And that's where our power zone is, that's our heartland and that's who we need to reach out to in order to build a groundswell of support behind the Games."

It's a big city, and Troop has an enormous task ahead. Toronto was once hopping with international sport spectacles such as the Maple Leaf Indoor Games and the gymnastics Milk Meet.

That's all changed, and now Hogtown has to step up to the plate to prove it has the chops to be a good host for one of the largest multi-sport events on the face of the earth.  

It's up to the citizens of Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe to embrace the 2015 Pan American Games and what they might mean for the long-term health of their communities.

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