Robert Fulford's column about Toronto's Olympic bid

(The National Post, July 7, 2001)

In the psychological history of Toronto, has there ever been a process as disconcerting and pathetic as the attempt to attract the 2008 Olympic Games? Win or lose, we should admit that this project has said nothing good about us, our values, or the spirit of our city.

Any Olympic bid naturally involves a contradiction: it combines implausible braggadocio with humiliating genuflection. The city that wants to become the site of the Olympics must boast and beg at the same time. It must claim to be a metropolis of the highest class while simultaneously abasing itself to seduce a committee of suspicious strangers -- in this case a committee whose recent history is itself gravely stained by scandal.

Meanwhile, back home, promoters of the Olympic bid must persuade local citizens that the Games will answer the city's most urgent prayers. Backers of the Toronto bid have identified many pressing civic needs, from a well designed waterfront to adequate housing, and then argued that most of them will be met through the magic of the Olympics.

How? We have decided to believe the Olympics are a money machine. The theory is that once we become the Olympic host, cash to improve the city will flow our way, if not in direct Olympic profits (always dubious) then certainly in gigantic grants from the federal and provincial governments.

These governments, to whom we send most of our taxes, have not been overly generous to us in recent years. But somehow (we just know it's true) they will be so blinded by the shining promise of an Olympic city they will immediately begin sending us large cheques.

The idea of having the Olympics on our doorstep intoxicates people who deal directly with it, but those who aren't drunk on this special liquor will notice there's something both illogical and vaguely corrupt in the idea of sucking the senior levels of government into our project.

It implies that one group of leaders (the local Olympics boosters) can trick another group of leaders (those at Queen's Park and Ottawa) out of tax money that the second group controls. Do we believe that provincial and federal governments are such idiots that a big sports event will re-order their financial priorities? Yes, so far as I can tell, we do, even though almost every one of the politicians involved is old enough to remember vividly the disaster of the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

The City of Toronto's official propaganda explains at length the benefits that can come to us: a clean-up of the waters of the inner harbour, restoration of the Don River, the Garrison Creek linkage project, the greening and revitalization of the Port of Toronto, and a transit link from downtown to the airport. The city doesn't quite promise all of these will come to pass, but it cites them in a wish list that's part of its statement on the Olympics.

It's conceivable, of course, that all the schemes will work and every municipal dream will come true. But even if that happens, the process will amount to a perversion of democracy. If Toronto needs and deserves these facilities, and if somewhere there's money to build them, then the governments involved should provide the money, Olympics or no Olympics. As it stands now, we are asking that the right things be done for the wrong reason, usually a recipe for policy disaster.

In the three years since the bid process began in earnest, the optimism of the Olympic boosters has turned contagious, spreading to every level and every corner of the city. There is nothing that the Olympics cannot do for us. I've heard otherwise sensible people of great stature say that the vastly ambitious renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum, for instance, will be covered, more or less incidentally, out of money connected with the Olympics.

Private citizens are also expecting to make money. Torontonians now seem to think that when Pierre de Coubertin advocated reviving the ancient Olympics in 1892, he predicted that when they are established, "the cause of real estate will have received a new and powerful support." Actually, what de Coubertin said was "the cause of peace," but Toronto has its own exigencies. We now imagine the Olympics making our hot real estate market even hotter.

On June 28 a National Post headline read, "Olympics could cause homes to soar in value." Now that's a Toronto story. Windfall profits, the kind to which Toronto homeowners believe they are absolutely entitled, will apparently arrive along with the Olympics in Riverdale, the Beach, and Cabbagetown. According to Will Dunning, a Toronto real estate consultant, creation of the stadium and the village for athletes will throw an umbrella of prosperity over houses in roughly the same area, producing increases of maybe 40%. The Post story even worked out the numbers: "a home appraised at $300,000 would be worth $420,000 by the time the Olympic flame is lit." That's the kind of talk that makes Torontonians smack their lips in anticipation. Those who don't want to sell can also make a grab for some of the loot: a Royal LePage survey discovered that about a quarter of our homeowners expect to leave town during the Olympics and lease their houses, at exorbitant rents. This sends a curious message to the world: Toronto is a great place to have the Games -- and by the way, we're outta here for the duration.

Call me a prude, but this is unseemly. Toronto's ancient reputation as a city of cold-eyed money-grubbers has always seemed both unfair and inaccurate to me, but the smell of Olympic prosperity may finally be making it true.

The lust for Olympic profit has distorted our thinking on even more obvious issues. Mayor Mel ("I apologize") Lastman, who has accidentally taught us so much about ourselves in the last few years, demonstrated the confused state of our values when he revealed in a newspaper interview that in some part of his mind he equates contemporary Africans with cartoon cannibals who boil strangers in big pots. His remarks caused distress -- but the wrong kind of distress.

Torontonians should have been upset by the knowledge that the titular leader of the city amuses himself with racial stereotypes so dismal they would mortify a resident of Biloxi, Mississippi. Instead, we appeared to worry most about what it would cost us. We wrung our hands in public at the thought that his indiscretion would affect the votes of the 15 African delegates voting on the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic bid has so muddled us that we don't even know how to feel shame when it's appropriate.

The official propaganda from the City of Toronto Olympic office says the "2008 Olympic Games and the Bid for these Games" will create substantial legacies, among them a "stronger community spirit and pride." Perhaps there are citizens who agree with that. My sense is that precisely the opposite is the case. As we wait for the decision from the International Olympics Committee meeting in Moscow, we should be contemplating not the bright possibilities of our future but the period of intense confusion and embarrassment we have just come through. No matter how much good the Olympics may do Toronto if we get them, they are unlikely to undo the harm that the Olympic bid has already done.

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