It took Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke to provide a fresh way of thinking about Toronto’s future. During Monday’s press conference to introduce the new international star players Toronto FC had signed, and address the huge cost of doing so, he borrowed a line from Bobby Kennedy: “Some people see things as they are and say ‘why?’ Others dream of what can be and they say ‘why not?’ Today is why not. Why can’t we be great?”
It’s a sentiment we’re waiting to hear from our growing lineup of penny-pinching potential mayoral candidates, a message much needed in the city right now. It’s certainly worth considering this week with the launch of another sports-related initiative—the Ernst & Young report on mounting a bid for the 2024 Olympics that a city committee will soon debate.
Normally, I’m wary of such mega-projects: Olympics, Expos, Ferris wheels, and other stunt city-building proposals. You should build a city for the needs of the people who live here, not for a one-off event. It’s the same reason you don’t renovate your house for a single big party—when the party is over, you need bedrooms and a kitchen and a rec room for your family, not a giant ballroom, cloak room, and catering facility.
But reading the report, a few things jumped out. One is that the ballpark cost to governments could be as high as $7 billion. A good chunk of it would be spent on sports facilities, which is where I roll my eyes—an 80,000-seat stadium might serve as a home for an NFL team down the road, but are huge velodromes and aquatic facilities the kind of public investment we need to make? (Especially if many duplicate the ones we’re building in the GTA for the 2015 Pan-Am Games?)
Still, $5.5 billion of the budget is set aside for “infrastructure”: remediation of the eastern port lands where the Olympic site would be located, tunnelling for the eastern portion of the downtown relief subway line, 17,000 new units of housing. This is stuff we have to build whether we host any events or not. We should have built it already. One of the chief appeals in the report is this line: “The level of expense requires the support of the Province of Ontario and the federal government.” Indeed, the plan suggests, based on how Olympic funding traditionally works, that all the infrastructure costs would be borne by the higher levels of government, with the city contributing land.
It shouldn’t take something like a bid for an international sporting event to get governments investing in transit and housing (some of which could easily be set aside as affordable housing after the games). But given the way debates about city building have gone over the past few years—and the lack of investment from the federal government, which stretches back decades—perhaps we need a big party to focus their attention on our needs.
Besides, if we did get the games, it would be a hell of a party. It would be a chance to welcome the world to a city proud of its multicultural population, and an opportunity to focus on how much we have to show off to the world. Many who fancy themselves serious people think it’s silly that the Olympics gets everyone jazzed up with all the “higher, faster, stronger” talk about the pursuit of excellence as a valuable human undertaking. I only wish we could embrace that attitude of determination and sense of achievement towards governing our own city.
What’s essential is that any bid keeps the legacy needs of Toronto front and centre. If we get the province and federal governments on board to support our plan, we need to be able to follow through on the infrastructure investments, even if our bid fails to win gold with the International Olympic Committee.
In my ideal world, our city and its leaders would want to strive for excellence and dream big dreams just because it would be good for us. But we haven’t done that. Maybe it takes sports figures and massive events to lead the way, to convince politicians at all levels it’s worth working up the ambition and spending the money to answer the question: “Why can’t we be great?” Bid or no bid, that’s a lead worth following.