Olympic fever is afflicting our politicians as they make a mad dash for the gold.
The spectacle of Toronto Mayor John Tory conferring yet again with Premier Kathleen Wynne this week on how to backstop a bid for the 2024 Games shows Toronto’s perennial obsession, bordering on blind hysteria, is back.
After bidding every few years since the 1960s, we should have built up our natural resistance to the Olympic virus by now. We need to be inoculated anew, not with boosterism but a booster shot that contains a large dose of reality.
With a looming Tuesday deadline to join the bidding process, here are the top three reasons — gold, silver and bronze — to drop out of the race. Because if we win, we lose.
• Gold: It’s not just the financial fright of budget overruns, but the sheer terror of a terrorist attack: The bigger the peril, the higher the perimeter. And the more money allocated to erecting a defensive wall.
The threat can come any time, any place. Remember the madness of our G20 security deployment in 2010, whose commanders have only recently been called to account? Those police kettling tactics would look like a tea party compared to the frenzied response if there’s any actionable intelligence on Al Qaeda recruits, let alone anarchists in black bandanas.
Security mania has transformed the Olympic Games into war games. Conceived as a respite from global conflict and a stage for athletic competition — a time for rivals to lay down arms and throw the javelin — the Olympics have become centre stage for terror spectaculars. The 1972 attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Games punctured that sense of invulnerability, but the current era of terror — symbolized by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — has made the cost of protection prohibitive.
When advocates of the 2024 bid talk up the benefits of infrastructure investments, lubricated by decision-making deadlines that supposedly spur political will, they overlook the massive security budget that is money down the drain. There is no return on investment for SWAT teams, police overtime, command centres, army deployments and new equipment ordered for Olympic security. As surely as the G20 summit trampled over civil liberties, it also drained the treasury. As per its motto, the 2024 Olympics would make security “faster, higher, stronger.” And costlier.
The Games are now a security nightmare and a terrorist’s dream.
• Silver: Despite the hype, the Pan Am Games are not a training run or qualifying heat for the Olympics. They are the antithesis of the Olympics, because they are so utterly regional and forgettable, even if enjoyable and affordable. Terrorists can’t make a splash at Pan Am events, so they take a pass. The appeal of the Pan Am Games is that they have so little appeal.
But if you scale up those small scale Pan Am Games into an Olympic-sized competition, you drive up costs exponentially — without getting the same bang for those billions of bucks. The Pan Am facilities, costing about $2.5 billion, were a good fit for a mid-sized megacity such as the GTA, but could not easily be repurposed. A $17-billion Olympic bid would require a far bigger stadium; the new velodrome in Milton is also too small to make the cut. The outsized Olympics would require oversized facilities, which would ultimately be a bad fit for the community.
• Bronze: Even if there is no head start from hosting the Pan Am Games, it gave us a heads-up on traffic headaches: All that fretting and fussing about HOV lanes this past summer would be dwarfed by the frenzy and fulminations if we closed down even more lanes for those convoys of Olympic officials and busloads of athletes. And while the HOV experiment proved successful, our politicians remain far too tentative about keeping the dedicated lanes in place, lest they offend anyone — undermining the claim that these events bolster political will.
Next week, the mayor must decide whether to enter the bidding game for the Games. He knows better than to fall for the fiction that the private sector will pay the $60 million bill for feasibility studies, that the Games won’t go over-budget (they all do, always massively), and that the provincial and federal governments should swallow the inevitable deficits. Even Bay St. professionals, who traditionally back such extravaganzas, appear to be having second thoughts.
We now know that the Olympics are as much about cost overruns as running tracks. Basking in a successful Pan Am Games triumph, Toronto should quit while it’s ahead.