Toronto's possible Olympic bid could be thwarted by politics, business

Toronto may have pulled off a successful Pan Am Games, but that doesn't make the city a shoo-in as a future Olympics host.

Rio de Janeiro hosted 2007 Pan Am Games before scoring 2016 Summer Olympics

Canadian athletes dance during the closing ceremony of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games on Sunday in Toronto. Toronto has expressed public interest in hosting the Summer Olympics, but it has yet to file an official application. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

The Pan Am Games have just finished, but already attention is turning to Toronto's rumoured ambition to bring the athletic competition's big brother to Canadian soil.

The Canadian Olympic Committee's President Marcel Aubut has revealed that he will "absolutely lead and advocate with the whole power of my office that Toronto becomes the host city for 2024 Olympic Games."

Toronto, as well as any other interested cities, have until September 15 to join the official race to compete for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Already five cities across North America and Europe have joined the competition. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Toronto Mayor John Tory teased the idea of vying for the Games last week, saying any announcement would come after the ParaPan Am Games conclude August 15.

The Games have set Toronto up to host a number of international events, he told CBC News Sunday, but "no decision" has been made.

"I think it's time for a really thoughtful reflection on this and not some kind of, sort of knee-jerk reaction to what have been a very successful Games."

The city actually expressed public interest in the idea a couple of years ago, but it has yet to file an official application.

If the speculation is true, Toronto will join the race against Rome, Paris, Budapest and Hamburg, Germany. Any other interested cities can officially register their candidacy until Sept. 15.

By then, Toronto will have the staging of the Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games under its belt, but that's just one of several factors that can add up to a good host city.

Industry watchers say sometimes the International Olympic Committee's final decision on a host city is more likely to come down to politics, business or geography.

Leveraging Pan Am success

Toronto's ability to host the Olympic Games isn't in question after its Pan Am run, says Vijay Setlur, a sport marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

While the traditionally second-tier event started slow, organizers eventually sold more than one million tickets to events. Canadian athletes showed their appreciation by finishing a close second in the medal standings.

After the games wrap up, several new facilities will remain that could house future Olympic competitions, such as a velodrome and multiple swimming pools.

Toronto now boasts "a track record on which we can build," says Setlur.

It's a formula with proven results. Rio de Janeiro hosted the Pan Am Games in July 2007 and launched its ultimately successful bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics a few months later.

Transportation woes and other obstacles

But the Olympics are a much bigger event. This summer, more than 7,000 athletes from 41 delegations travelled to compete in Toronto. That's at least 3,000 athletes and 164 delegations fewer than what London managed during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Toronto would have to expand its sports facilities and strengthen its public transportation to be ready to welcome that influx of people, says Setlur.

For one thing, the city needs a proper Olympic stadium, says Setlur. Despite seating more than 50,000, the Rogers Centre is deemed too small and doesn't have the right layout to host summer sports. 

Canadian runner Andre De Grasse, left, won two gold medals during the Pan Am Games. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)
Plus, organizers would have to be able to efficiently move athletes and fans around Toronto. While the city created high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and extended public transit for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer, Setlur says Toronto would need to fix its traffic congestion issues as well as ongoing public transit woes.

"The Olympics would definitely be a catalyst for the type of transit infrastructure that this region desperately needs."

The city would need to galvanize public support to spend taxpayer dollars this way. The bid process could run the city between $50 million and $60 million, while a successful bid could cost up to $6.9 billion, according to a 2014 feasibility report.​

The politics behind selection

But even if Toronto could deliver on all those fronts, it may still not be enough.

IOC member votes can be influenced by a mixture of factors, says Jens Sejer Andersen, the international director of Play the Game, a Danish organization that works to promote sport ethics. Many of these factors, like business or politics, are out of a bid committee's control.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said any possible announcement about a Toronto 2024 Summer Games bid would only come after the ParaPan Am Games finish on August 15. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Some romantics are swayed by proposals that speak to the heart, he says, like Brazil's successful pitch for a festive, happy Rio de Janeiro.

But it's good to remember that the Olympics are also a massive business.

"They're always looking to open up new markets for the games," says Janice Forsyth, former director of Western University's International Centre for Olympic Studies. That could explain why many recent host cities have never staged the Olympics before.

Currently, the IOC is debating whether to hand the 2022 Winter Olympics to Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing, China. The latter hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, but has never hosted a Winter Games, and with more than a billion people who could be inspired to try winter sports, a winning bid could open "a huge market" for sporting goods manufacturers, says Sejer Andersen.

That potential revenue, which Kazakhstan's roughly 18 million population wouldn't be able to provide, could motivate some IOC decision makers.

IOC members with close government ties can also succumb to geopolitical pressures, he says, such as being pressured by their head of state to cast their ballot for a specific host city.

The committee may also want to address geographic parity.

​Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Games, for example, because they have never been held in South America before, says Sejer Andersen.

The summer Olympics haven't been to North America since a 1996 stint in Atlanta, and haven't been to Canada since Montreal hosted in 1976.

Thinking about the athletes

Sejer Andersen says there is also the athletes' best interests to consider. In determining a winning bid, IOC officials cite practical matters such as the distance from athletes' sleeping quarters to competition sites, the state of sports facilities and the quality of the athletes village.

It's impossible to know which of these factors will triumph in any given year, says Sejer Andersen.

Setlur says Toronto has one card it could choose to play: reminding the IOC of its two relatively recent failed bids, for the 1996 and 2008 events.

"Two times failure," says Setlur, "now three times lucky – hopefully."