Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who attended the Toronto Blue Jays’ home opener last week, says the success of next summer’s Pan Am Games in Toronto rests with the event's volunteers. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)
Like all big-time events, the success of Toronto's 2015 Pan Am Games rests with the support of its volunteers.
With 15 months to go, there is finally a big splash from the organizers of next summer's Pan American Games in the Golden Horseshoe.
As National Volunteer Week kicked off in Canada, politicians, chief executive officers, Olympic and Paralympic gold medallists were on hand to whip up the hype for a sporting event.
A band played, a popular comedian unveiled a video to carry the message of the spectacle, the porcupine-like mascot danced and a big crowd hooted and hollered its approval.
"It's the biggest deal in the city of Toronto," exclaimed David Peterson, a former Premier of Ontario and now TO2015's chair. "It's the biggest multi-sport Games in the history of Canada."
All that factual, hyperbole aside, the folks now responsible for TO2015 are at long last testing the waters in the most meaningful of ways.
By putting out the call for 20,000 volunteers who will be required to make the Games successful in 16 different municipalities, the Pan Am brain trust is banking on the fact that ordinary Canadians will embrace the impending gathering unconditionally.
The reluctant media is no longer the issue. Government, at all three levels, is on board and so is the private sector.
Now it's up to the average citizen to pledge allegiance, not to mention unlimited amounts of all too often thankless work, to the cause.
What they are desperately seeking here is a bevy of unsung heroes.
"We want passion from you," the Ontario Minister responsible for the Pan American and Para Pan American Games, Michael Chan, exhorted. "What are you waiting for? Please sign up!"
It's the make or break concept of this kind of international, high performance sport.
Whether or not people are willing to donate their precious time as well as technical and organizational expertise is what the success or failure of the enterprise hinges upon.
It has always been so.
Coaches, officials and car pooling parents have rarely cashed a pay cheque of any substantial amount. Neither have those who genially shepherded the Olympics in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal. The same is true of the legions who volunteered to make the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and Victoria a bonanza. Twice the unheralded, average citizens of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba carried off the Pan American Games.
Now it's Toronto's turn to step up.
"We're going to find out immediately what the response is," said Monique Giroux who heads up the banking giant, CIBC's, sponsorship effort. The bank will be lending its vast call centre network to the TO2015 volunteer, recruitment drive. "Our experience is that people are willing to travel to do this," Giroux stressed.
"We've got to get out of the Toronto bubble and connect with the other communities," said Saad Rafi, the newly minted CEO of TO2015. Volunteers power amateur sport. We're all volunteers at heart. All of us have been touched by someone who has given their time to us."
It's a sentiment echoed by the stars of the show, the athletes themselves.
"These volunteers never get to stand on the podium," said gold medal hockey player Natalie Spooner who hails from the Markham, Ontario region. "By volunteering myself for TO2015 I'm saying I believe what these Games can do for all of us."
"I've never had the privilege to represent Canada and compete on home soil," said multiple Paralympic medalist and swimmer Benoit Huot of Montreal. "We often forget to thank all of you guys, the volunteers. Without all of you we would not be able to compete at home and to achieve all of our dreams."
It's expected that those willing to take part will emerge from every corner of the country and the initial numbers are encouraging. Saad Rafi told the boisterous crowd that the volunteer portal had opened that very morning at 5 a.m., and by 10 a.m., five hundred or more had already signed up.
These need to be the people's Games," Rafi said. "We've got to get beyond the detractors and set our own agenda.
"It is impossible to do something like this unless you're all pulling in the same direction," said Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario. "It's up to us to create this environment so that athletes and aspiring athletes can be the best that they can be."
Gosal challenges every Canadian
The Federal Minister of Sport, Bal Gosal, challenged every Canadian to get on board with TO2015.
"We are hoping to encourage all of the members of our minority communities to take part and to showcase the diversity of our country," he said.
It was a big splash and, in many ways, a big thing to ask.
But in reaching out for this many volunteers the stewards of TO2015 did what they had to do.
They were calling all Canadians to do their part for what will be the biggest sporting spectacle in the nation's experience to date.
If enough ordinary people are receptive the Games will undoubtedly be an unqualified success.
Such is the history of volunteerism.
But if TO2015's big ask falls on deaf ears, the chance may never come again.
It is unquestionably a watershed moment for high performance sport on Toronto's, Ontario's, and even Canada's fields of play.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.