Toronto Welcomes The Americas To The 2015 Pan American Games

By Angus Gillespie

The countdown is on for the City of Toronto to take centre stage as host of the Pan American Games, a major international summer sporting event held every four years that brings together elite world-class athletes from the Americas in a celebration of athletic achievement. More than 7,600 competitors from 41 nations will participate in 36 sports and almost 400 events at various venues throughout southern Ontario. The Pan Am Games will be contested from July 10-26 and be followed by the Parapan Am Games from August 7-15, where athletes with physical disabilities engage in competition.

Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, will be the venue for both the opening and closing ceremonies. The Games will be declared open by Governor General David Johnston, the official representative of Queen Elizabeth, the country’s ceremonial head of state and will feature the entertainment of Cirque du Soleil. The closing ceremonies will be declared by the President of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) and will include a flag transfer to the mayor of Lima, Peru, where the Games will be held in 2019.

The CBC holds the official television and online broadcasting rights with a plan on covering everything from the opening ceremonies to the closing ceremonies and hours of athletic events in between. While offering more than 650 hours of coverage online, the CBC is planning to televise five hours of programming on most days, which will generally be spread over three different time slots to accommodate various time zones. The early television coverage will begin at 3pm local time every weekday with another two hours of programming in primetime starting at 8pm. A wrap-up show will then air from 11:30pm to 12:30am. More than 400 million international viewers are expected to tune in.

Many sports will be given extended coverage throughout the 17 days, with soccer being sub-licensed to Rogers Communications.

Although the idea of holding the Pan Am Games first materialized as far back as 1932, the inaugural event was held in Buenos Aires in 1951.  This year marks the 17th edition of the Games and the third time they’ve been hosted by Canada. Previously, Winnipeg had the honour of having the Games in 1967 and again in 1999. The Pan Am Games are surpassed in size and scope only by the Olympic Summer Games and the Asian Games.

The Province of Ontario and the federal government each committed to a contribution of $500 million in operating funding towards TO2015’s Games budget of $1.4 billion for planning and delivery. Toronto will pay the largest share from the individual municipalities, but all are involved part of the overall funding to some degree. The Toronto 2015 Organizing Committee, along with all three levels of government, have spent about $675 million in the capital budget upgrading and building new venues in the region. When all is said and done it’s estimated the final tab could come in at about $2.6 billion.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Saäd Rafi who joined the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee as Chief Executive Officer in January 2014, replacing Ian Troop. Rafi, who recently served as Ontario’s deputy minister of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, brings a wealth of experience in delivering large-scale transformation, change management and project management to Ontario’s public and private sectors and was the ideal choice to spearhead this colossal event.

Infrastructure

A sizable aspect regarding the legacy of these Games is centred on sustainable and ecologically friendly infrastructure. During the discussion Rafi confirmed there has been a decidedly conscious effort to be as ecologically sound and as carbon neutral as possible during the building of the 30 venues in 16 municipalities across southern Ontario. A number of City-owned facilities have undergone capital improvements in support of the Games, and there are also numerous structures that were already in place, allowing for a temporary rental of sorts. The conscious effort to build the highest quality and most efficient structures has been evident from the very beginning.

“From the infrastructure builds at a LEED Gold standard, to how we will use temporary power and deal with waste, the ambition is to be as ecologically and environmentally friendly as possible,” says Rafi.

The most noticeable revitalization project relating to the Games has taken place just east of Toronto’s downtown core, where a 35-acre portion of the 80-acre West Don Lands is now home to a wonderfully-designed Athletes’ Village and several other new buildings that have totally changed the physical aesthetic landscape of what was, until quite recently, a very unattractive looking area.

In addition to the Athletes’ Village there is a student residence for George Brown College and a YMCA with several other notable tenants soon moving to the area. For many years Toronto City Council had debated over how to go about improving the derelict industrial eyesore of the West Don Lands, but it wasn’t until the announcement of the Games officially being awarded that the revitalization really got the kick-start it needed. The post-Games neighbourhood has already been nicknamed the Canary District in honour of a former restaurant that had been in business for decades, primarily serving truckers passing through the city.

The Village will be the Games-time home for about 10,000 athletes, coaches and team officials, and will incorporate a full range of conveniences and amenities. In addition to being LEED Gold certified, the Village will have a 24-hour service available, a transport mall and accreditation services that will maximize convenience for athletes and officials, all the while providing a safe environment for all residents and visitors.

“The technical people who inspect our progress from the Pan American Sport Organization have said that the Athletes’ Village is at Olympic standards. What will be there after the games is a new community,” states Rafi. “It will have affordable housing and a residence for George Brown College. It has – and will have – an 80,000-square foot YMCA, which is the biggest in the GTA and then it will have two market-rate condominium buildings that are going through the sales process.”

“A significant city-building legacy of the Games, this new mixed income, transit-friendly neighbourhood is an example of public-private partnership at its best,” said Mayor John Tory during the handover of the Village by the Province to the city at a widely attended public event in February. “Post Games, the Village will add a mix of new housing, including 253 new affordable rental units, to the City’s housing stock.”

There remains a large parcel of land on the West Don Lands that holds great potential for additional future development, and the province has the ability to make those choices. The area is bordered by the Don River, King St., Parliament St. and the rail line adjacent to the decrepit Gardiner Expressway – which is another even more troublesome colossal eyesore and the focus of seemingly endless discussion on how its crumbling infrastructure will eventually need to be replaced, with still no tangible solution on the horizon. Nonetheless, the transformation of the West Don Lands from just a few years ago till now has been nothing short of spectacular.

“I think it will do for the east end what the SkyDome (Rogers Centre) did for the west-end development,” says Rafi. “We’re already seeing announcements for some of the retail establishments that will be going into the West Don Lands post-Games. The Village is complete and it was handed over to us from the province on February 20. Not many Games can say their Village was completed fully six months before the Games started.”

Private Sector Support

While each level of government has been responsible for a great deal of funding, private enterprise has also stepped up to the plate and been a valued partner in the process.

“We have 63 corporate sponsors, which is unheard of in a Pan Am Games,” Rafi emphasizes.

“Guadalajara had 41, and half of them were government agencies. We only have three that are government agencies. Corporate Canada has been remarkable in their support and we probably have another five or six yet to announce and there are still people coming up to us, wanting to be sponsors either in-kind or in-cash. We wanted to have six premier partners, and we have six, and our lead partner is CIBC. The response from Corporate Canada has been overwhelming.”

The Games will also provide tremendous exposure for some cities in southern Ontario that are hosting a number of the events. As example, St. Catharines, which is world-renowned for the annual Royal Canadian Henley Regatta will host the rowing events on Martindale Pond.

“Not unlike the Olympics, every multi-sport Games chooses a host city and I thought the Bid Committee’s choices of spreading this out across the Greater Golden Horseshoe Area was very smart,” says Rafi.

Prior to the construction of Tim Horton’s field in Hamilton, which will be host to men’s and women’s soccer – and which is also the permanent home of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats – the last time the Steel City had a new facility was when Ivor Wynne Stadium was built in time for the 1930 British Empire Games. Although the stadium’s anticipated completion date was missed by a wide margin, expectations are that it will be 100% ready for the opening kickoff of the first soccer game.

“Many of our sports will be held at venues in Toronto but there is a real excitement in those other communities. In some instances the venues were already in place, such as the Hershey Centre in Mississauga in Mississauga where the main arena will be divided into two separate fields of play: one for karate, judo, taekwondo, wrestling and wheelchair rugby, the other for powerlifting and GM Place in Oshawa, where boxing will be contested,” says Rafi.

In addition to the competition at the Games themselves, will be an overflow of entertainment activities that many non-sports people will undoubtedly enjoy. PANAMANIA is a 35-day Arts & Cultural Festival that will showcase the diverse cultures and artistic excellence of Ontario, Canada and the Americas through music, theatre, dance, visual arts and fashion. It’s a way for them to draw people to their communities, whether they are visitors or residents of Milton or Markham, Whitby, Ajax, Toronto or any of the other host municipalities.

Ticket Sales

In terms of the target for revenue generation for public ticket sales at the various sports everything seems to be on pace. At the time of our discussion with Rafi he confirmed they had reached 38% of their revenue target, and that’s without anyone having knowledge of when Canadians will be competing in any of the 36 sports. It stands to reason thousands more tickets will be sold as excitement builds based on when individual athletes or teams advance to the medal rounds. The hope is to sell at least 500,000 tickets – if not more.

“We’ve sold 350,000 tickets and that doesn’t include tickets to the various national Olympic committees, so we’re in good shape. We also believe a lot of sales will happen in the last couple of months before the games as we all start turning our minds to who’s coming to compete,” Rafi says. “Twenty four of the 36 sports are Olympic qualifiers and all of the 15 Parapan sports are Olympic qualifiers for Rio in 2016 so we’re going to have fierce competition from the Americas.”

Post-Games Legacies

A question many people often ask is what benefit the Games will have for the people of Toronto and the surrounding region both during and after the Games. There is no doubt that holding an event of this magnitude has generated a lot of much-needed economic activity.

“There are a number of benefits that the Games deliver. While we’re certainly putting on a significant athletic event and our Arts & Cultural Festival, the province estimates 26,000 jobs to be created as well as more than six years of GDP uplift of $3.6 billion,” says Rafi.

One of the priorities when the initial planning started years ago was to ensure that the venues would provide a long-lasting impact on the communities where they are located. The 2015 Pan Am Games will combine a mixture of brand new venues and existing venues and even several temporary facilities. At the conclusion of the Games, some facilities will remain in use, while others will be retrofitted for other activities. Rafi envisions a strong legacy will be preserved.

“I would say a lasting legacy is that for the new facilities being created in these communities, there is a sports tourism industry in Canada that is worth $5.2 billion a year,” he says. “Whether it’s a shooting centre in Innisfil, Toronto with a BMX facility, Scarborough pools or Milton and Markham with their facilities, they all have the opportunity to take advantage of that industry and put on provincial, national and international events every year for that matter. Bring in sports tourism and people to their communities and really showcase what they have to offer. That is a legacy for every venue and every city in this very large Games’ footprint.”

Rafi says another perhaps less tangible legacy – because it’s hard to quantify – will be what he calls the social legacy. A lot of talk has focused on infrastructure and sport, but the social legacy is expected to have an enormous impact on youth and our current and up-and-coming athletes.

There is no disputing that many of the high-performance athletes – especially the summer athletes – have not had the facilities that their winter athlete counterparts have had, in large part due to hosting the Calgary and Vancouver Olympics but also based on our geographic climate.

“These athletes will have the access now where they won’t have to leave the country to train. So, for example the velodrome: what we are seeing are coaches and cycling athletes moving to Milton and one day there may be a world champion coming out of that facility,” remarks Rafi.

Rafi maintains that today’s youth will have the opportunity to use these sites, promising they will not be white elephant behemoth-type facilities. They are community designed, community built and community used and sport can be a key to open many opportunities.

“All the facilities will be ready for the Games,” he confirms. “We still have some work to do – there’s no question about that. We had two very severe winters which makes for a tough construction environment but our facilities are 95% complete. It’s our expectation and fervent belief that they will be ready for Games’ time.”

With the spotlight on Toronto for 17 days this summer the success of the Games may be a determining factor in attracting other major international events in the future.  While there are some who have that as part of their master plan, Rafi says his sole focus in ensuring these are the best Pan Am Games ever and not worrying about what is to come in the future.

“I really would leave those choices to civic leaders and the Canadian Olympic Committee,” he says. “I’m certain because Marcel Aubut, who heads up the Canadian Olympic Committee and is a board member of the Pan Am Games, definitely has that interest and desire, and that’s not a secret – but it’s definitely not my call.”

International Spotlight

Toronto and the surrounding region will receive enormous media exposure as a place to visit and invest in, so there are economic development and tourism opportunities.

“These Games will be broadcast to almost 400 million households every day in the Americas and beyond, because we are trying to sell the rights internationally as well,” says Rafi.

A somewhat less business-oriented answer is that Rafi believes Canadians will feel prideful because we’re very welcoming hosts; living in one of the most diverse, inclusive locations on the planet and it will be an opportunity to be profiled in an inclusive way that has never been done before. That in and of itself brings further tourism for the likes of the Caribbean Festival, Pride, Luminato or the Toronto International Film Festival and a number of other marquee festivals and events, be it a future Grey Cup or the NBA All-Star Game. It is another set of legacies that is being paid for now in order to have many of those other opportunities flourish even more in the future.

About 700 world-class athletes from Canada will compete in the upcoming Games, and the goal is to finish second in the standings behind only the United States.  Among some of the more well-known athletes expected to compete include the likes of Christine Sinclair and her teammates from the women’s soccer team, track and field stars Jessica Zelinka, Damien Warner, Derek Drouin, Sarah Wells and Kate Van Buskirk, diver Meghan Benfeito and boxers Chris Johnson, Mladen Miljas, Milton Martinez and Michael Brandon.  The men’s baseball team will be looking to defend its gold medal from 2011, but the competition will be intense from the likes of the U.S. and Cuba, who are perennial powerhouses. The men’s and women’s swim teams are always battling for team and individual medals and will be coached by Ben Titley. Canadian rowers should also be amongst the medallists.

Beyond 2015, the Games will be set up to provide housing, transportation, educational and recreational legacies for decades to come, so the investment will pay off in the long run. Hosting the Games is the chance to showcase Ontario to foreign businesses as an ideal location to invest in and promote economic growth. While there has been no shortage of criticism about the cost of hosting the Games, they are here now and so it makes perfect sense to support them and put our best foot forward in giving a warm welcome to the athletes, coaches, family and friends from the 40 countries who are visiting.  For the vast majority of them it will be their first visit to Canada – and first impressions go a long way.

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