At the 1948 London Summer Olympics, Harrison Dillard of the United States won the men's 100 metres gold medal in a time of 10.3 seconds. When the Olympics were held again in London, more than six decades later, Dillard's clocking would have been too slow to qualify for the semi-final. The same goes for the marathon: The men's gold medalist in 1948 would have finished in 81st place in a field of 85 finishers at the 2012 London Olympics. As for the winner of the 1948 women's marathon, there was none. Women were not allowed to run any distance longer than 200 metres.
The Olympics have come a long way since then, and in more than just athletic performance. The price tag has also progressed. The 1948 Games had a budget of £761,688. That's about $25-million in today's dollars – or roughly one-700th the cost of the 2012 Games.
Toronto is considering bidding for the 2024 Olympics, and must by Tuesday tell the International Olympic Committee whether it wishes to begin the long, expensive process. Neighbouring Mississauga has already said that it, and its taxpayers, want no part of this.
Toronto's bid would not be a long shot. The city has come close before, Canada is a "safe hands" kind of country, and the Summer Games haven't been held in North America since 1996.
The question is not whether Toronto could host the Olympics. The question is: Should it? The answer is no. And the reason is cost.
Consider just this one item from the budget of the last Summer Games. According to an Ernst & Young feasibility study prepared for the City of Toronto, London spent $1.5-billion on security. To put that in perspective, if the Toronto Transit Commission, one of the largest public transit systems in North America, were given $1.5-billion, it could more than double the size of its current fleet of buses. Or it could more than double its number of streetcars – in 2009, the TTC signed a $1.2-billion contract to replace its entire fleet of streetcars with 204 new ones.
Would Torontonians rather cover the city in a blanket of airport-level security for a few weeks? Or would they rather have twice as many transit vehicles on the streets, for decades? In a world of finite resources, those are the trade-offs. Or at least they should be.
The megaproject known as the Summer Olympics has become increasingly expensive to host, and difficult to justify on any basis other than national vanity. (The price tag for the Winter Games? Much lower.) For hosts, the Summer Games are usually a loser on any rational cost-benefit analysis. Too much of the spending demanded by the IOC is on things wanted by the Games – but not needed by the people of the host city, province and country.
Toronto's feasibility study guessstimated that between $4.2-billion and $5.9-billion would have to be spent on venues – including a new 80,000-seat stadium. The underused white elephant built by taxpayers in the 1980s and then sold at a loss to private owners, the Rogers Centre, isn't up to Olympic snuff. That new stadium (London's cost $875-million), plus other new venues such as an athletes village and a 20,000-seat swimming centre, would likely be built in the Portlands, east of downtown.
Five years ago, Toronto City Council tried to address the lack of community hockey arenas in the city with a plan to build a four-rink complex, together with an athletics facility, in the Portlands. The cost was $88-million. This was an everyday recreational facility for kids and parents, something that would make life better for real people. The project died for lack of funds.
Look again at the estimated cost of the Summer Games venues and stadiums: Between $4.2- and $5.9-billion. At that price, Toronto could build its "too expensive" community hockey arena – 50 times over.
The main argument in favour of the Olympics, made by a permanent lobbying class of marketers and P.R. hangers-on, is that it will give the host city the necessary leverage to improve its infrastructure – build transit, redevelop a waterfront, reinvigorate a neighbourhood, whatever. Barcelona in 1992 is the prime example. But Barcelona is also almost the only example.
The idea of leveraging the Olympics to build infrastructure rests on two shaky, cynical premises: that voters and governments have to be bamboozled by the excitement of a big sports event into spending on badly needed but boring infrastructure, and that winning the Olympics is a way for taxpayers in one city to magically extract dollars from taxpayers in the rest of the province and the country.
If the boosters were honest, their pitch would sound something like this: No, Toronto doesn't need a new, 80,000-seat stadium. Or a new aquatic stadium with as many seats as the Air Canada Centre. Or a new athletes village. (Ontario just built one for the Pan Am Games!) Or a host of other venues with a combined price tag of multiple billions of dollars. But by wasting taxpayer money on those things, we'll have an excuse to spend on things that are needed, like transit. For every unnecessary stadium, you get a subway line. For every velodrome, you get some suburban light rail.
But how can Toronto, and the whole Greater Toronto Area, waste billions of dollars, while simultaneously finding other billions for what it actually needs but currently can't afford? Easy. The Olympics, so the theory goes, will allow the region to demand funds beyond counting from the province and the federal government. Toronto will get to have its Olympic cake and eat it too – with the rest of the country's taxpayers paying for the cake.
The thing is, Toronto doesn't need to be a more famous city for two weeks. It needs to be a better city, for the people who live here, for decades to come. The same goes for the whole country.