Features

After the Games

What will really happen once the Pan Am & Parapan Am Games are over?

John Lorinc
Image of diving boards at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre

Like many students, faculty, staff and alumni at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Associate Professor of Urban Geography Andre Sorensen has made a workout at the new Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC) part of his campus routine since it opened last fall. “The place is already very busy,” he observes. “I go there a lot.”

Even before the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan American Games begin this summer, the sprawling facility—designed and built by NORR Architects—has filled a conspicuous gap not only on the Scarborough campus, but in the city’s northeast end as well. With two internationally sanctioned 10-lane/50-m pools and a diving tank, as well as a field house with a track, indoor courts, and numerous workout spaces, TPASC offers fitness amenities to both the university and the broader community through an innovative governance partnership between UTSC and the City of Toronto. “This isn’t going to be one of those places where 10 years later you see tumbleweeds blowing around,” Sorensen predicts.

To those who monitor major international sporting events and their promised legacies to host communities, Sorensen’s desert reference is not difficult to decipher. All too often, after the high-performance athletes, visitors, and international news media pack up and go home, the cities or regions that mounted costly athletic festivals find themselves burdened with orphaned facilities—more of a ghost town than a positive legacy to local sports and fitness.

While the US$15-billion 2012 Summer Olympics delivered net economic and social benefits to London, and especially its derelict east end, other cities have had less profitable experiences. Montreal struggled for years under the crushing debt incurred for the 1976 Olympic Games. More recently, Beijing has been weighed down by its National Stadium, built for the 2008 Games. The “Bird’s Nest”, as the facility is commonly called, is more albatross than profit centre. Built for US$480 million, the facility has lacked a major tenant, according to The Atlantic, and was frequently vacant, despite its US$11-million annual operating budget. (Perhaps ironically, Toronto, which challenged Beijing for the 2008 Games, may have come out ahead, given that the city secured $1.5 billion for waterfront revitalization just for entering a bid.)

With second-tier or single-sport international events, such as the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, the Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup, the financial stakes are lower than they are with the Olympics, which carries a daunting price tag. Still, event organizers of all stripes today must earmark far more for security during the games than operating endowments afterwards. (Toronto 2015’s $239 million security budget is more than three times the federal/provincial legacy fund). And it isn’t difficult to find cases of legacy promises that went unfulfilled or delivered only narrow benefits.

Cora McCloy, a researcher at U of T’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation who wrote her PhD on Canadian hosting policy and sports legacy planning, points to Edmonton’s 1978 Commonwealth Games as an example. The principal long-term beneficiary of the event was the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, who received a 16,000-seat stadium financed out of the Games’ budget. The arena, however, wasn’t actually used for the Games. “Across the board,” McCloy says, “professional sports has won out with these large-scale amateur sports events.”

Many experts agree that marquee events create lots of short-term construction work – Toronto 2015 generated 26,000 jobs – but often fail to deliver on long-term promises and sustained benefits. “It’s a very mixed experience, even within individual games,” says UTSC Principal Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic runner and former dean of U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education who has studied the legacy issue extensively. “There could be facilities that work really well and make a difference for generations, and facilities that become white elephants,” he says.

According to Kidd, the growing body of research on event legacies highlights a handful of key lessons: success is contingent on the strength of the plans and investment strategy as well as the degree of consultation with the local community that informed decisions about how to locate, build, and finance facilities.
Depending on the event, host cities may not have the latitude to undertake the sort of planning that delivers long-term benefits. In recent decades, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has selected host cities based on bids that promised not just impressive venues but also a commitment to deliver long-term benefits to the host region like transit investment or economic development in lower-income communities. Yet until now, Kidd points out, the IOC rules have encouraged bid cities to cluster venues around a large Olympic stadium and village.

The Pan American Sports Organization (PASO), he adds, imposes no such constraints on bidders. “We were very lucky that PASO has very flexible rules so we could put the facilities where we wanted. In our case, that has minimized the likelihood of white elephants.”

McCloy, who says Toronto has faced a “gaping hole” in terms of its ability to host international-calibre sporting events, notes that a lot of strategic thinking went into location decisions for the Pan Am & Parapan American Games. The organizers sought to co-locate venues with the city’s university campuses, and then established partnerships intended to help ensure accessibility to the broader community. TPASC, for example, was partially financed through a long-term $25 annual student levy approved in a UTSC referendum in 2009. U of T and the city are partners in owning the facility, overseeing a corporation that manages operations, and some revenues come from retail and sports organization tenants.

In addition, in planning for the Games, then-provincial Minister for Health Promotion and Sport Jim Watson relied on a detailed needs assessment of Ontario’s recreational infrastructure; he used that study to both justify and then direct investment for the Pan Am Games, notes Kidd.

Provincial planners also relied on partnerships to avoid creating orphaned facilities. TPASC’s 10-person board consists of five U of T directors and five municipal representatives. About a third of the available time has been designated to city-run activities, including free or low-cost access to the track and the pool. UTSC students have the ability to apply for new coaching internships for Pan Am/Parapan Am sports, such as wheelchair basketball. And casual or learn-to-swim users of the pools have access to certain lanes while high-performance athletes are practicing in others. “It’s inspiring if you’re a six-year-old kid and you’re swimming six lanes down from an Olympian,” says UTSC Director of Athletics and Recreation Scott McRoberts, adding that the facility has been set up to provide a range of swim programs – from casual to competitive – for children and youth, as well as triathlon swim training for adults, and coaching and mentoring openings for UTSC students.

The joint ownership structure, McRoberts adds, has forced both UTSC and the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation department to find innovative ways to co-exist. “Before, we had our own facilities and rules. Now, we have to collaborate.… When you get everyone in the same space, the wheels start turning.”

The other key tenant in the building is Swimming Canada’s Ontario high performance centre, which re-located to an office in the facility to help coordinate regional, national and international meets held there, as well as oversee dry-land training programs for competitive swimmers. The group’s national marketing director Chris Wilson says Swimming Canada will be holding a pair of Pan Am trials in the facility this spring, as well as trials for the 2016 Olympics later in the year, with the latter expected to draw large audiences. With use by diving, synchronized swimming and water polo organizations, the aquatic centre and its pair of ten-lane pools “will be an extremely busy place for championship style events,” he adds. “Without question, this is now the pre-eminent facility in the country and we’re excited to be a big partner in there.”

But PASO’s non-prescriptive bidding rules don’t guarantee that all host facilities will find these kinds of post-event uses. According to an evaluation of 2015 legacies conducted by the Niagara Community Observatory, there is evidence that venues outside the main host city may lose out on the distribution of post-event legacy funding. There are two 2015 venues in the Niagara region, a rowing course in St. Catharines and a flatwater canoe and kayak track in Welland.

The study, Sport Legacy In Niagara: Before and After 2015, found that for the 1999 Winnipeg Pan Am Games, rowing and flatwater events were held on Minnedosa Lake, about 200 km east of Winnipeg. The whole event cost $140 million, and generated a $4-million legacy endowment. The proceeds, however, have gone to Winnipeg-based venues, with nothing left over for the boating venues on Minnedosa Lake.

McCloy also points out that while Winnipegers continue to use the aquatic centre built for the 1967 Pan Am Games, and since transferred to the city, user fees have gone up despite the public investment in the venue. Vancouver, by contrast, has done a good job providing broad public access to Olympic venues such as the skating oval. With a $70-million legacy-endowment fund established by the federal and provincial governments, McCloy is optimistic that TPASC will continue to have access to the revenues it needs to stay open and accessible.

The income generated by the fund, says Toronto 2015 spokesperson Fulvio Martinez (BA, 2005), ensures that the facility’s capital maintenance costs will be funded for 20 years. “It will cover some of the core operational necessities of the facility,” he adds, although some of the operating budget has to be covered by other revenue streams, such as fees and concession income.

It’s worth noting that one aspect of the promised Pan Am 2015 legacy died long before any athletes were poised to arrive in town. Sorensen recalls that when UTSC students were asked to approve the $25 levy in 2009, the question also asked about their views on an LRT line connecting UTSC to the end of the Bloor-Danforth subway route via Eglinton Avenue and Morningside. Sorensen notes that the Tokyo 1964 games included the original funding for the high-speed rail service that subsequently expanded across Japan. “[LRT] was presented by the Pan Am people as part of the whole package.” But the provincial government subsequently reduced the funding earmarked for LRTs in Toronto, and then former Toronto mayor Rob Ford tried to cancel the entire LRT program after taking office, causing years of delay. “I clearly think the aquatics facility is a good thing, but it’s unfortunate about the transit piece,” says Sorensen.

There’s still potential for other non-sports legacies, though. Among other possibilities, a hotel could be built to serve athletes and teams who come for tournaments as well as delegates to conferences or other academic events held on campus. Such types of development could use the fallow land abutting UTSC and transform the area into a new east end hub.

Kidd stresses that it is important to take the long view when considering how cities make use of sports facilities purpose-built for special events. He points to the Montreal Olympics, which he and many others criticized for excessive up-front spending on over-built venues that would be all but abandoned in the economically stagnant years immediately after the Games. “For 10 years, very little happened,” says Kidd.

But in the late 1980s, provincial, municipal, and educational officials began to look for new ways to make use of those mothballed facilities. The City of Montreal created a department of social diversity and sports, established programs in the Olympic facilities and boosted operating and maintenance budgets. Meanwhile, the city worked with provincial and amateur sport officials to market Montreal as an international destination for Olympic sport events.

Today, Montreal hosts dozens of such competitions, which bring in revenue to help support those Olympic facilities. “Legacy has a long fuse,” Kidd says. “I’ve come to that conclusion late in the day."