There’s nothing like the Olympics to hone our skills as warriors of the remote. People, let’s face it: We own the ability to expertly toggle between all the live-action channels. But, frankly, I’m confused by the growing arms race for Olympic medals when there’s an epidemic of obesity around the world. The current generation of children is heading toward major spikes in heart disease. Where’s the Olympic spirit in that?
In megasports lore, there’s a huge financial interest in having people sit on the couch and watch the television advertisements larding the sports event.
In this way, an Olympic host city becomes a spectator itself: In Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, it is estimated that participation in regular exercise has remained at 45 per cent before and after hosting the Olympics.
Let’s say that, after the 2012 Olympics, fitness actually increases in London. Had the city reinvested in its beleaguered or sold-off school playgrounds, built recreation centres and laid down hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike lanes, it would have achieved new levels of wellness for a lot less than the £17.3-billion ($27-billion) London will spend on hosting the Olympics.
As for public-space renewal, a paltry £10-million has been spent on improving the city’s walking and cycling routes leading to the sports venues both in and outside of London. Meaning, essentially, that sidewalks have been upgraded.
Other cities are insisting on new, greater levels of urban fitness. Copenhagen deserves an Olympic gold medal for designing fitness seamlessly into its low-scale, elegant urban fabric. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, 36 per cent of all Danish adults commute to work on bikes; 45 per cent of all Danish children biked to school in 2010. Now the city has brokered a deal with 16 surrounding municipalities to construct “super bike highways,” with signals and suggested speeds, that run from the suburbs 25 kilometres straight into Copenhagen.
By contrast, consider that just last week, 182 cyclists were arrested in London for daring to enjoy some urban fitness, and bike through the streets during the opening night of the 2012 Olympics. The Critical Mass bike ride has taken place every month for years in and around London. Rather than being celebrated by Olympic organizers and trumpeted as part of the event’s legacy of urban fitness, the cyclists were halted from travelling in and around the Olympic Route Network. According to The Guardian, participants and other people who happened to be on their bicycles, including a 13-year-old, were detained through the night in a windowless garage and buses.
That’s a sad miscasting of one of the fundamental principles contained within the Olympic Charter, which calls for the practice of sport as a human right. Olympism is no longer a pretty ideal. It’s become a critical cri de coeur, especially given the reality of a worldwide epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. (According to a 2006 Statistics Canada health report, three times as many Canadian children were overweight that year as in 1981; the number continues to grow dramatically.) In cities such as New York and Toronto, 14 per cent of people live with diabetes, a condition that is personally devastating and that places extra demands on a stressed health-care system.
There’s still time, before the 2015 Pan Am Games land in Toronto, to shift passive voyeurism to long-term reactivated urbanism.
“We need to get kids off of gaming on television. It’s fun – but we need to do something to get them more active,” says Charles Sousa, the Ontario cabinet minister responsible for the Pan Am Games, when we spoke earlier this week. “Type 2 diabetes can be prevented if we can just get them out on their bikes.”
Beyond speaking of the need to leave a legacy of healthy living, though, Sousa will not commit to investing in the design and construction required to create systems of enduring urban fitness – which is surprising, considering that the bid for the games was initiated under the ministry of health promotion. From the City of Toronto, meanwhile, there’s an e-mail that states: “Staff from across the City are working on developing specific proposals for potential Pan Am Games related legacy initiatives.” Sound vague? Yes, it does.
Is it too late? It doesn’t have to be. There are some promising new facilities already under construction: aquatics centres and field houses at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, and a new stadium at York University; the new Milton Velodrome and the Markham PanAm Centre; and renovations of the Etobicoke Olympium and of the Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton. The problem is that access will rarely be free or easily available; many of the new facilities will require membership fees or affiliations with a university.
In the West Don Lands neighbourhood, where the Pan Am athletes will be housed, there will be a student residence for George Brown College constructed above a new YMCA. Located at the entrance to the athlete’s village, the 50,000-square-foot recreation centre will be constructed according to a fast-tracked schedule in time to provide a training facility for Pan Am athletes. After the Games, the centre will provide a gym, swimming pool and fitness studios for 8,000 people in the West Don Lands neighbourhood.
What else can be done? Here are three ideas: Create and enhance public parks that offer free, instant recreation such as pick-up games of soccer or football. Build dedicated cycling lanes to connect the downtown to the suburbs seamlessly so that commuting by bicycle is reasonable for both elite athletes and women in high heels. Inspire and require schoolchildren to take part in programs such as the wildly successful ParticipACTION launched in the 1970s: Let’s make doing 100 situps in a minute a badge of honour – and give out a certificate of achievement to every participant. It doesn’t have to be a gold medal.
For more about great design ideas from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org