As athletes vie for gold, image-poor Winnipeg hopes for a silver lining
To understand why so many Winnipeggers are bullish about their city, it helps to go for a stroll on a warm summers evening to the historic Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. For thousands of years, native people were drawn to this junction to camp, fish and trade goods. These days, The Forks serves as a downtown playground of outdoor cafés and bars, funky retail shops and leafy hiking trails. People eat, drink and watch their children frolic in a heritage park that features wooden figures representing Hudson’s Bay Co. fur traders and early immigrants to the city. At one point, the visitor is frozen between two centuries. Behind is the skyline of modern Winnipeg. Ahead is a view of the towering Saint-Boniface
Cathedral where Louis Riel—hanged as a traitor in 1885 and now revered as one of the founding fathers of Manitoba—is buried. This river junction is where the settlement of the West began all those years ago.
It is this sort of image that civic boosters hope will be beamed across two continents as Winnipeg plays host to the 1999 Pan-American Games, starting on July 23. Not the bone-chilling winds that whip across the city’s most famous intersection, Portage and Main, for so many months of the year. Not the annual mosquito infestations that inevitably draw smirking stories in the national media every summer. And certainly not the street youth gangs that, in recent years, have terrorized certain inner-city neighbourhoods. All of those are very real aspects of life in Winnipeg. But as its proponents point out, the city is much more than the sum of such shortcomings—and Winnipeg is often unfairly stereotyped by people who have never visited the city, let alone lived there. “Our national profile is not all that positive,” says Klaus Thiessen, president of the government-funded Economic Devel-
opment Winnipeg. “It’s a major challenge for us and one that cannot be underestimated.”
Hosting an event like the Pan-Am Games may help counter some of the negative images. For 17 days, more than 5,000 athletes and 3,000 support staff from the 42 countries of North, South and Central America as well as the Caribbean will descend on Winnipeg. Another 1,500 visiting technical officials and 2,000 media representatives will be on hand for the 41 sporting competitions that make up the Games. Organizers expect the event to bring about 100,000 visitors to the city and predict the Games will inject more than $250 million into the Manitoba economy. The Games will be broadcast daily in Canada by the CBC and The Sports Network, and by various networks throughout Central and South America. A highlights package is also slated to appear on the U.S. cable network ESPN.
As with other large international sporting events, the Pan-Am Games will leave a rich legacy of athletic facilities. They include a new $8.7-million multi-sport complex, a $ 12-million ball park and $3.3 million in renovations to the Pan-Am swimming pool, which was originally built in 1967, the year Winnipeg last hosted the Games.
In strictly sporting terms, the Pan-Am Games are often viewed as the poor cousins to the Olympics. Few world records are broken at such events and many prominent athletes simply give them a pass (page 39).
The glamorous men’s 100-m sprint has been stripped of its biggest stars—Canada’s fastest man of the moment, Bruny Surin, and reigning Olympic champion Donovan Bailey both declined to race the event in Winnipeg, as did the current world-record holder,
Maurice Greene of the United States.
Organizers strive to put the most positive spin on such setbacks. They point out that many attending countries are using Pan-Am results as qualifying standards to make next year’s Summer Olympics teams in Sydney, Australia. “What people have the opportunity to see is the same athletes a year before they become famous,” says Games vice-president Kim Browning.
“Mark Spitz was here in 1967 and many people probably didn’t know who he was until he won seven gold medals at the Olympics in 1972. The same for Arthur Ash. Michael Jordan was also a Pan-Am athlete before he became world famous.”
Not everyone is buying the pitch. “They want to say this is the greatest thing that has ever, ever happened,”
M observes Scott Taylor, veteran sports columnist for the I Winnipeg Free Press. “Well, excuse me, but I’m not yet t convinced.” Taylor points out that advance ticket sales I for the Games have been sluggish—as of late last week, I organizers had sold only slighdy more than half of the I 500,000 to 600,000 tickets required to meet their rev1 enue target of $ 13 million. Taylor says many Winnipeg
sports fans are still mourning the loss of their beloved NHL team, the Jets, and resent that the same municipal, provincial and federal governments that are spending a total of $ 101 million on the Games declined to cough up the $110 million needed to build a new hockey arena that might have kept the Jets from becoming the Phoenix Coyotes.
All the same, Taylor says that everyone in the city is hoping that the Pan-Am Games will be a resounding success. “For this community, this has to be good, this has to work,” he says. “After the embarrassment of losing the Jets, we can’t afford to look bad again.”
In many ways, the staging of the Pan-Am Games comes at a critical juncture in Winnipeg’s history. At the turn of the last century, the city was the undisputed powerhouse of the Canadian West. The routing of the Canadian Pacific Railway through Winnipeg, the arrival of thousands of enterprising immigrants and the city’s central role in a then-burgeoning grain trade all contributed to the euphoria that had city fathers boasting of a shining “Chicago of the North” on the banks of the Red River.
By 1913, Winnipeg’s population had soared to 150,000, making it the third-largest city in Canada, behind Montreal and Toronto. But the Depression years took a heavy toll on the city, and the waning of the grain industry and Winnipeg’s manufacturing base led to inevitable decline. Today, with a population of 680,000, Winnipeg is only Canada’s eighth-largest city, and many residents have watched with
The city boasts a lively cultural scene and a diversified economy
dismay as Calgary and Edmonton took over as the new centres of commerce and political influence on the Prairies.
Now, as a next century is about to dawn, Winnipeg is trying to come to terms with its diminished status. A study conducted by KPMG Consulting and released by Economic Development Winnipeg in March outlines some of the challenges facing the city. The percentage of Winnipeg’s population that is made up of senior citizens is one of the highest in Canada, while the 20-to-44 age-group is declining at a faster rate than the national average. Winnipeg currently suffers a net loss of about 3,000 residents a year to other provinces. Most of the people leaving are skilled university graduates between the ages of 25 and 29.
Overall, Winnipeg’s population growth—about one per cent per annum—is being spurred by an influx of aboriginal people, who now make up about 10 per cent of the city’s residents. The growth rate among aboriginals—many of whom are moving into the city from reserves—is 10 times that of non-natives. That, in turn, is putting new pressures on the
city’s social services network, as unemployment rates among aboriginals are at least double that of the general population.
A 1996 survey conducted by Economic Development Winnipeg also indicated that a majority of the city’s business leaders believe high taxes are impeding growth, that the civic government is not sufficiendy pro-business and that the negative image outsiders often have of Winnipeg is a serious obstacle in terms of convincing new businesses and skilled people to locate there. A Winnipeg Free Press editorial published during last fall’s municipal election summed up the mood this way: “There is a sense of despondency, of defeatism that pervades the city, an idea that what other city governments can accomplish, ours cannot. Worse than that, there is the widespread feeling that this is not even the fault of city government, that it is somehow just part of the reality of being Winnipeg.”
Not all, though, is doom and gloom. The KPMG study also took note of many of Winnipeg’s undisputed strengths. The city boasts one of Canada’s most diversified urban economies, including a revitalized garment sector, a thriving aerospace industry and an expanding agri-food processing business. Winnipeg is home to Canada’s largest insurance company (Great West Life Assurance), mutual fund company (Investors Group) and bus manufacturing industry. The city has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates (5.6 per cent) and highest rates of worker productivity. It is also a very affordable place to live and raise a family: the average house price in the city is $85,000, compared with $165,000 in Calgary and $340,000 in Vancouver.
Then there are the less tangible but equally relevant quality-of-life factors. The city enjoys a remarkably active arts and cultural scene, including a number of live theatre companies, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Manitoba Opera and the world-renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It is also famous for its community spirit and volunteerism, perhaps most evident during the Great Flood of 1997,
when the humble and mighty alike gathered at the banks of the Red River to pitch sandbags.
One of Winnipeg’s biggest boosters speaks of the city with the zeal of a convert. Mayor Glen Murray, 41, was born and raised in Montreal. In an interview in his city hall office, the dapper, fasttalking Murray recalled how he first came to Winnipeg 15 years ago on a three-month contract with Canada Post Corp. “I fell in love with the city,” he says. “I got involved in the cultural life and quickly had this huge network of friends. In three months, I I found I was more engaged in Winnipeg than I I had ever been in Montreal.”
I Murray decided to stay and started his own en! vironmental auditing firm. Soon, his friends were 1 urging him to run for city council. Murray, who is I gay, was initially skeptical about his chances. But I he ran, and won, serving for nine years as a coun! cillor before being elected mayor last October. “■ Murray notes that his victory took a lot of outsiders by surprise. “Many people who don’t know Winnipeg think this would be the last place to elect someone who is open about being gay,” he says. “But this is a very generous city and one with a respect for diversity.”
Murray admits that before he moved to Winnipeg he had “an eastern, chauvinistic view about Western Canada.” But he now speaks unabashedly of his love for the Prairies and his belief that Winnipeg will be “the city of the 21st century.” If his adopted home has a major flaw, he says, “it is that people are self-deprecating to a fault. They are not urban chauvinists. They do not talk up their city enough.”
One person who has never had a problem talking up Winnipeg is Izzy Asper, chairman of the board of Can West Global Communications Corp. Over the years, Asper has been repeatedly asked why a successful fellow like him hasn’t moved on to the bright lights of Toronto—a premise that makes him all the more determined to remain in the Manitoba capital. “I live in a complex world,” says Asper. “I spend a lot of time in very large, difficult cities—London, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney. For me, Winnipeg is a safe haven in a pretty stormy sea.”
From Asper’s downtown office, he has a clear view of the spanking new Can West Global Park, a facility his company helped finance and where the eagerly anticipated Pan-Am Games baseball tournament will be held. Asper, one of several business leaders who tried in vain to keep the Winnipeg Jets in the city, notes that “there was a serious sense of defeat and depression when we lost the Jets, and a fair bit of recovery required psychologically.” But the ebullient media mogul is confident the city will rally behind the Games. “We don’t get the Three Tenors, or the Sinatras or Streisands,” he says. “But what we do get we appreciate and support 110 per cent. I expect the Pan-Am Games will give Winnipeg a new lift.”
That is also the expectation of Games organizers—al-
though they concede that they wish advance ticket sales had been stronger. “I would like to have seen more people buying sooner,” says Browning, “but all our market research of other sports and festival organizations shows that they are going to buy because Winnipeg is a walk-up city.”
The same research shows that, as was the case with the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, the Pan-Am Games will be largely a local affair. Organizers expect to sell up to 85
per cent of the tickets to people living within a 300-km radius of Winnipeg. The strongest advance sales have been for finals and semifinals in such high-profile sports as track and field, soccer and synchronized swimming. The biggest draw of all is what is being billed as the best Pan-Am baseball tournament ever staged. Seven of the world’s top 10 teams are from the Americas and, for the first time in PanAm history, professional ball players will be allowed to represent their native countries. Mike Moore, vice-president of sport for the Games, says fans are understandably drawn to the high-profile events. But he is urging people to “buy tickets to a couple of sports they’ve never seen just to try them out. I guarantee they will be pleasandy surprised by the calibre of performance.”
That is also the advice of Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic track star and now a University of Toronto physical education professor. Kidd, who will speak at a conference on sports ethics in Winnipeg just prior to the Games, says fans and the media alike focus too much on professional sports and the Olympics. “People who really love sports,” he says, “can go to a high-school gym and see something that moves them, excites them, gives them great moments of drama.” Those who attend the Pan-Am Games starting later this week have the chance to experience that shot of wonder, says Kidd. And in the process, they may just give a shot in the arm to the venerable city at The Forks. IS]
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