Why Toronto has never hosted the Olympics

Global News/John Hanley

The question creeps up when talking about Canadian cities that have hosted the world during an Olympic Games. Toronto, Canada’s largest city and centre of commerce and culture, has yet to share in that experience. We tried in 2008 but lost out to Beijing.

Last fall mayor John Tory assembled an advisory panel to look into the possibility of hosting a major international event and asked members Gord Nixon, former CEO of RBC; Sevaun Palvetzian, CEO of CivicAction; and Saäd Rafi, former head of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, to create a short-list of events the city could bid on in a decade.

“I convened an advisory panel because I want Toronto to adopt a thoughtful process for considering bids, rather than waste time and money without the right conditions to win or the necessary infrastructure to host a successful event,” said Tory.

The report, Bringing The World to Toronto, found several systemic flaws and cracks spread throughout Toronto’s bidding process that have prevented the city from enjoying a major event on scale of the Olympics, World Expo or FIFA World Cup.

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The main issue appears to be Toronto’s lack of a formal, official process for bidding on major events. Too often the attempt is ad hoc and reactionary in response to an opportunity that arises – one which other cities have likely been preparing for for years.

“Because these events arise only periodically (and often unpredictably) there has not been much reason to develop a consistent, methodical approach to evaluation or planning that carries forward from one event to the next,” read the report. “As a result, major event planning has often been undertaken with a significant degree of uncertainty, a lack of sufficient early coordina­tion and limited resolve from all partners.”

In other words, the city has been caught off-guard and unprepared.

“Our report will help the city and its partners address these challenges and, hopefully, ‘profes­sionalize the process’.”

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The report reveals the city has had to “start from square one” every time an opportunity to bid on a major event arose because it lacked the formal processes and coordination to jump on the opportunity and “hit the ground running” during the competitive process.

“A significant amount of time (and resources) is expended just to get started on planning and evaluation,” read the report. “In our view, it is important that major event hosting has a natural home at the city and is supported by reliable financial resources.”

This could come in the form of designated staff or a separate department singularly focused on exploring and preparing for hosting opportunities, even when none exist in the immediate future. The point is to be ready when they do.

Another problem the report underscores is a lack of regional partnerships, an important element that adds a measure of security and stability within the bidding process.

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In service of that goal, the advisory panel recommends the city work with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport; the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation; Tourism Toronto and the surrounding regional tourism organizations to form a partnership “that leverages the existing capacity of these organizations.”

Bringing The World to Toronto reveals that Canada’s largest city missed the opportunity to do so in 2015 with the World Expo, which was eventually awarded to Milan, because it lacked the necessary commitment from a government partner.

Both a well-funded bidding mechanism with pre-existing processes that can quickly be executed, and multi-region, multi-governmental support are identified as key components necessary for generating and sustaining public support – the other key ingredient to a successful bid.

“It’s not surprising then that, as we’ve seen with some unsuccessful or unrealized bids in the past, they failed to capture full public support (as in the case of the 2008 Olympic bid).”

The report illustrates the anatomy of success by using Vancouver, awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics, as an example. The initial idea to host the Games came in the late 1990s with the formation of the Vancouver Whistler 2010 Bid Society.

The organization enjoyed initial support from Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Whistler and Sport BC. In 1999, a new non-profit Bid Corporation was formed with financial backing from the Canadian Olympic Committee, province of British Columbia, the city of Vancouver and municipality of Whistler.

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In early 2000, ten years before the actual Games, the Corporation began signing corporate sponsors. In 2002 the city signed an agreement with the federal government that committed $9.1 million in funding.

In 2003 the IOC Evaluation Committee visited Vancouver and in their report “highlighted the ‘high quality’ and active participation of key government officials and organizations that will be involved in staging the Games.”

In July 2003 the city won the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Although Toronto has decided against bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics, the 2025 World Expo is still on the table. Mayor Tory and city councillors met with representatives from the Bureau International des Expositions in January to discuss the possibility.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is a strong supporter of hosting the event and indicates as much on her Twitter bio with the hasthag #Expo2025.

“We can definitely be ready to host the World Expo by 2025,” said Wong-Tam. “The priority would be to ensure that we start this year the Port Lands flood protection by naturalizing the mouth of the Don River. Then we must accelerate all infrastructure work including roads, transit and servicing by no later than 2023.”

Wong-Tam also noted the significant benefits of hosting the event, which she says is estimated to draw around 40 million visitors. These benefits include 190,000 new jobs, $15.5 billion in new value added GDP and 400 plus acres of revitalized waterfront lands.

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“Montreal and Vancouver’s waterfront would not be what they are today without the galvanizing effect of their own Expo hosting experiences.”

Montreal hosted a World Expo in 1967; Vancouver, an International Expo in 1986. The most recent Expo in Milan drew roughly 22 million visitors over six months.

The 30-page document singles out three “mega-events” whose reach and impact remain unrivaled on the international stage in terms of marketing and prestige: the Olympics, World Expo, and FIFA World Cup.
The report authors recommend against bidding for the FIFA World Cup until recent controversies and restructuring related to FIFA, the governing body of soccer, settle.
In addition to these “mega events”, the report defines what it calls “global community events” that although not nearly as large in scale and profile can command a considerable amount of international exposure and marketing reward. These events typically are home in the cultural or trade sectors and Toronto has already hosted many of them, including the 2014 WorldPride festival and International Indian Film Academy Awards (2011).
The panel’s short-list includes the following:
Arts & Culture 
  • Art Basel Exhibition
  • STEAM Carnival
  • Operalia Competition
  • TEDGlobal Conference
  • Parliament of the World’s Religions

Trade & Innovation

  • Institute of International Finance (IIF) Events
  • Financial Times Events
  • The Economist Events
  • World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference
  • World Bank Group Annual Meetings
  • RiskMinds Conference
  • Mobile World Congress
  • Trustech Annual Conference
  • ASIS International
  • Retail Banker International Conference

In the end, there is general consensus that events of both types drive economic growth and raise a city’s profile on the international stage. In Vancouver, the Winter Olympics generated between 38,530 and 51,510 jobs according to one estimate. In London, it’s believed the 2012 Summer Olympics will have added 618,000 to 893,000 years of employment to the regional economy by 2020.

“But planning and hosting major events also involves substantial public costs, significant financial and operational risks and potentially difficult trade-offs for host cities and regions,” according to the report.

Mayor Tory is taking a cautious view. “When it comes to bidding on major international events, we have to look seriously at the benefits they would hold for Toronto and weigh those against the very real investments of time and money that would be required,” he said.

Being prepared, which Toronto currently seems not to be, will be key in ensuring the benefits outweigh the cost.

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