If people in the Greater Toronto Area can set aside the issues of inconvenience and cost – $2.4-billion or so, depending on who's doing the math – the athletes and others connected to the Pan Am Games promise the legacy of world-class facilities left behind will be worth the initial pain.
Two-time Olympic medalist Ryan Cochrane grew up in Victoria, which played host to the Commonwealth Games in 1994 when he was 5. His parents took him to the swimming competition at the aquatics centre built for those Games, and it became his home pool as he developed into one of the best 1,500-metre swimmers in the world – and a medal favourite in Toronto.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to sports in Victoria," Cochrane said earlier this week while at the recently built $205-million aquatics centre and fieldhouse at University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. "Building these venues is something for the generations to come. [The cost] is a bit painful now, but I think it means something for the next 30 to 40 years to the athletes. That's how we build champions. With terrible facilities, you're not going to have athletes competing in the sports."
But, the critics shout, what about the cost? History has proved, from the 1976 Montreal Olympics to the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil, that billions can be spent on facilities that sit empty as soon as the Games are over.
Among the 10 new facilities built in Southern Ontario for the Pan Am Games, the most expensive are the aquatics centre, Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton ($145-million), which plays host to soccer, the athletics stadium at York University ($45.5-million), home of track-and-field events, and the velodrome ($56-million) in Milton, Ont., where the cycling competitions will be held. More than a dozen existing facilities were renovated or upgraded for the Games.
Toronto Mayor John Tory argues none of them should fall into disrepair. He says the city and its other partners in the facilities are committed to using them to attract international competitions, and lure the best athletes in the world to train in them (as has happened at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, built for the 1988 Winter Games, and the Claude Robillard Complex in Montreal, built for the 1976 Summer Games). Tory also cites the $70-million Legacy Fund – established by the federal and Ontario governments to help pay to maintain the aquatics centre, velodrome and athletics stadium – as a safety net.
"This is what we do in Canada," Tory said. "We want to have first-class events, and we want to see if we can do them by half-measure, and argue about it a lot, and moan about the cost. Then we have these facilities which we don't keep up properly and wonder why we don't do so well in sports. I think that mentality is changing."
As far as spending goes, Tory points to the lasting value of venues such as the athletes' village, which will become a housing and retail development, and says, "I don't think we did anything that was over the top. The aquatics centre and the velodrome are world-class buildings, but why shouldn't we have world-class buildings?"
The group most grateful for a new facility is the Canadian track cycling team. Until the $56-million velodrome was finished in Milton, the only other Olympic-calibre indoor cycling venue in North America was in Los Angeles. That meant the Canadians spent the World Cup racing season living and training in Los Angeles from November through February, away from their families and at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cycling Canada.
The entire national team moved its headquarters to the velodrome in Milton, which also houses a gym, weight room and other training facilities that are also available to the public. The cyclists no longer have to move south for half the year and they no longer have to compete with the U.S. team for time on the track.
"We've got this world-class facility, we can just camp out, get our daily training in and do everything right," said Craig Griffin, the women's endurance coach. "It's one-stop shopping for cyclists or elite athletes. When you have everything central, you're not jumping around town trying to go to the gym, go to massage, things that just eat up the day."
Sprint cyclist Joseph Veloce, 26, can now drive about 40 minutes from his home in Ancaster, Ont., to Milton to train through the winter. It has had at least one profound effect on his personal life: He has a two-month-old daughter at home, who he gets to see every day. That wouldn't have been possible in Los Angeles.
"This allows me to live and train at this level while still in Canada and have time for my family," he said. "Here, we have one central facility where we can show up in the morning, do our track session, in the afternoon do our gym session. We get therapy there, we have a strength-and-conditioning coach. It's more of a complete training picture than bits and pieces put together."
Both Griffin and Ben Titley, Swimming Canada's head coach of the National Swim Centre – Ontario, which operates out of the aquatics centre, emphasized that all of the new facilities are open to the public. They think this will help attract new athletes to their respective sports.
"I just hope everyone understands this is a public facility," Griffin said of the velodrome. "We can get people in the door, they can ride, they can try the track and fall in love with a bicycle again that they may not have touched since they were children, especially over the winter months. It's really a commodity for athlete development, cyclists or just recreational cyclists."
The question remains, though, of why cities such as Toronto have to chase and land international competitions at the cost of billions of dollars just to be left with some new and upgraded facilities. It would have been far cheaper simply to have built the three major venues for the cyclists, swimmers and track-and-field athletes.
Ann Peel, a 1987 Pan Am silver medalist as a race walker, is now on the board of directors of Athletics Canada. She is happy to see new venues in her hometown of Toronto, as well as the Games. But she also understands the criticism and lays it at the door of generations of politicians.
"I think in the GTA it's been appalling, our [lack of] attention to sports facilities," Peel said. "I think that's a failure of politics and politicians to understand the need for infrastructure in many areas. That's a failure of government for two decades. If that's a failure, what a shame, but at least [now] we have those facilities."
Tory said politicians aren't entirely to blame. He said taxpayers and governments can't be prodded into building large-scale sports facilities unless there's an equally large-scale competition to showcase them.
He also said governments have to look at the total investment and factor in legacy assets such as the neighbourhood development left by the athletes village, the train from Union Station downtown to Pearson International Airport and other non-sports infrastructure would not have been built without the Pan Am Games.
"It's just the way we are," Tory said. "It's human nature – you get yourself dressed up, put your best foot forward because the show must go on. I believe in my heart that, had we not had [the Games], we might not have had the train to the airport by now. We probably would not have had an aquatics centre because nobody would have had the gumption to say we need to have one. We wouldn't have had the velodrome for sure and we wouldn't have had the new track stadium [at York].
"It happened because of these Games. Ask why that is, and it's human nature not to do things until you sort of feel you have to."
Canadian sports authorities made sure to present the best possible teams to showcase the facilities. While athletic powers such as the United States sent lesser-ranked athletes to compete in many sports because the Pan Am Games are not considered an elite event (the world championships in swimming and athletics are just weeks away), Canada has mainly sent its best, which is reflected in the country's early Games spot atop the medal standing.
Canadian athletes are focused on future events, too, but they say they are not treating the Pan Ams as a warm-up to, for example, the world athletics championships next month in Beijing.
"The next 10 days are geared to Pan Am," pole vaulter Shawn Barber said. "My priority is putting on a good show for the hometown crowd. It might not be as great a deal on the world view as a large-scale meet compared to Beijing, but I think it's still a great meet for the athletes."
Once the Games are over, the question becomes how will the facilities be kept up to international standards? Each is controlled by different partnerships between the cities and other levels of government, and in the case of the aquatics centre, the athletics stadium and the velodrome, the Legacy Fund will provide most of the annual upkeep costs.
Tory says the City of Toronto plans to actively pursue international competitions for the venues, although he did not want to discuss an Olympic bid. He sees those competitions as drawing elite athletes as well as investors to Toronto, which is incentive enough to pay what is necessary to keep the facilities current.
"I think having these facilities and keeping them in good order and having an ambition like that is going to be an important part of us being positioned for more international events," Tory said. "It's good for the city – it keeps us on the map."
In Milton, which claims to be the fastest-growing community in Canada, the population is still just a fraction of Toronto's at 102,000. Town councillor Rick Malboeuf is less sanguine than his colleagues on council about the future of the velodrome.
"I can see where the athletes, the coaches, the cycling enthusiasts are so excited. For them it's great," he said. "My concerns are for the taxpayers, not only the taxpayers of Milton but the taxpayers of Ontario. They are going to have to fund this thing for a minimum of 20 years. The business plan shows this thing is going to lose money every year, and that's why they set up the Legacy Fund. This thing is not a money-maker."
The current agreement between the town and the federal government calls for the Legacy Fund to pay $736,000 toward the velodrome's estimated annual deficit of $1-million, with Milton paying the rest. That agreement expires in 2017, however, and a new one has yet to be negotiated.
Malboeuf thinks the business plan is too optimistic about the number of international events the velodrome will attract, as well as about the operating costs. He also wonders if the Legacy Fund can maintain its commitments if there is a steep rise in costs.
"My concern is we're not set up enough to cover the maintenance and upkeep down the road," Malboeuf said. "We've never had a facility like this in Canada. We don't know what it costs to maintain. The wood [in the track] has to be kept at a certain temperature summer and winter. It's a massive building, it's going to cost a lot to air-condition and heat it. That's all guesswork as far as that goes."
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