Study uncovers how failed Olympic bids moved Toronto toward becoming a model city
Toronto lost its bid to host the Olympics Games five times during the past half century, yet the bidding process produced legacies for the city as well as lessons for other cities, according to a Virginia Tech urban geography expert.
“For Toronto, there was a steep learning curve, but the bid process itself was crucial to urban redevelopment with public involvement,” said Robert Oliver, assistant professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Oliver’s research examines bid documents, decades of government meeting minutes, more than a century’s worth of newspaper coverage, and interview data. His work has been published in the journals Urban Geography and Sports in Society, and the textbook “Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture.”
“Bidding for the Olympics is a time when local policymaking is influenced by outside forces, image creation goes into high gear, and the connection of ordinary citizens to the city-building process can be scrutinized,” said Oliver.
“Half of the world’s people and 80 percent of Americans live in cities,” he continued. “These crowded environments require large-scale infrastructure projects. The power of the Olympics is that different groups can leverage the Olympic symbol and resources in their own interest.”
In Toronto, various interest groups have used the Olympic bids as an occasion to redefine the vision for the city’s waterfront. The bidding process has also provided a window on the city’s politics and the importance of public participation, and reintroduced sport and the “right to play” to the city’s planning agenda, according to Oliver.
A hundred years ago, the objective of the Olympics was to reduce the distance between nations, regions, and societies. By the mid-1900s, the Games had become a huge engine for economic and urban development.
“It began with lofty goals, but today people want tangible results, in the form of improved infrastructure or a more positive international image,” said Oliver.
Beginning with the 1960 Olympics, large-scale construction became commonplace, such as municipal water supply systems, airport facilities, tourist accommodations, sewage disposal plants, road and highway networks, and subways.
“The opportunity to kick-start a large-scale urban transformation is what generated Toronto’s interest in an Olympic bid,” Oliver said. “Historically, there was a sense of a right to public access to the waterfront, but the arrival of railway companies in the 1850s created both a physical as well as a psychological divide. Since the turn of the 20th century, Toronto has engaged in the delicate exercise of reconnecting its citizenry to the water.”
With each bid, Torontonians were united by the desire for a public waterfront but remained divided on issues of access, ownership, design, and representation. However, Oliver attributes three key legacies to the city’s most recent bid effort, in 2002.
“First, a waterfront revitalization corporation was created, with an ability to acquire and dispose of property, raise financing, control development, and implement an agreed-upon overall plan,” he said. Waterfront Toronto has opened a new park and beaches, and waterfront communities are under construction.
The second legacy was the opportunity to observe the practice of local politics. “One of the greatest legacies of Toronto’s continued quest to host the Olympics has been heated discussions about the significance of the city’s waterfront and how it might be integrated into the lives of the citizenry,” Oliver said. “The bidding process provided an occasion for interested parties to articulate the meanings they attach to space, and to do so in the knowledge of the diversity of values that are competing for recognition and authentication.”
The third legacy was awareness of the lack of a sustainable plan for sports and physical activity, resulting in creation of the Toronto Sports Council, “formed to develop a voice for sport in the city by promoting community sport and working to increase accessibility to sporting opportunities for all citizens,” Council Chair Karen Pitre told Oliver.
Lack of sporting infrastructure in the city, especially that of an international standard, had been noted as early as the city’s 1964 bid. At the time, a letter to the editor of Toronto’s newspaper argued that money would be better spent on improving recreation facilities and the beauty of Toronto’s parks than on pursuing the Olympics.
However, the transfer of responsibilities such as social assistance, housing, and infrastructure from provincial governments to local municipalities in the last 30 years has forced many municipalities to shuffle their priorities. After the failed bid for the 2008 Olympics, Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division reported that it would cost $201 million to bring existing facilities up to standard.
“Still, despite alarming concerns with obesity and periods of declining accessibility, sport and recreational facilities are not viewed as critical pieces of public infrastructure,” Oliver said. “As a result, Toronto remains committed to winning the right to host a major sporting event as a means to secure a more impressive suite of sport facilities.”
“Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Sports Council are hubs for conversation. But if the conversation is ignored, the ability to get anything done is mute,” he said. “My money is on people remaining involved — continuing to think about their cities and the way they are unfolding.”
“Thinking about the competition over urban space during an Olympic bid is a useful means to get at questions concerning residents’ ‘right to the city’ and to explore alternative arrangements, visions, and claims,” Oliver concluded.
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