Canada and the World

WOE TO T.O.?

NOT EVERYONE WAS DISAPPOINTED BY TORONTO'S FAILED OLYMPIC BID. FOR TORONTO AUTHOR HAL NIEDZIECKI, TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TOO BUSY SELLING THE GAMES—AT ANY COST

July 23 2001
Canada and the World

WOE TO T.O.?

NOT EVERYONE WAS DISAPPOINTED BY TORONTO'S FAILED OLYMPIC BID. FOR TORONTO AUTHOR HAL NIEDZIECKI, TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TOO BUSY SELLING THE GAMES—AT ANY COST

July 23 2001

WOE TO T.O.?

NOT EVERYONE WAS DISAPPOINTED BY TORONTO'S FAILED OLYMPIC BID. FOR TORONTO AUTHOR HAL NIEDZIECKI, TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TOO BUSY SELLING THE GAMES—AT ANY COST

Canada and the World

Essay

On a snowy winter evening last year, I stumbled into a news conference trumpeting the `Arts & Culture" angle of the Toronto 2008 Olympic

bid. Like most Torontonians, I had been casually following the bid, reading the newspaper reports, biking under the ubiquitous 2008 logo-festooned banners. So when I was invited to this event, I decided to do my citizenly duty and check out the proceedings firsthand.

Held in the bowels of a Yonge Street theatre, the gathering consisted of bland speeches from bronze medallists and vaguely recognizable retired artists, the presentation of an oversized game-show cheque from the usually tightfisted gov-

ernment of Ontario and an ethnically correct array of children strategically displayed onstage like flowers in a vase. There was something about the commissioning of an official Toronto Olympics song, something about a teen camp featuring kids from all over the world and very little about the living, breathing arts that make Toronto one of the most vital cities in North America. The news conference, as insipid as a we-are-the-world charity pop song, told me nothing about how the bid organizers would present Toronto culture to the global masses and a lot about the bid organizers’ worldwide publicity scheme.

The Toronto Olympic bid was essentially put together behind closed doors by a wealthy elite (is there any other kind?). Concerned that their train not be derailed

by such piddling issues as poverty and cost overruns, they got the jump on detractors with a multi-year campaign designed to show us how the Olympics will revitalize the city and make everyone oodles of cash. Not a day went by without us hearing some tidbit conducted by the Summer Games 2008 marching band glee club. A seemingly endless stream of favourable polls was obligingly regurgitated by the daily press with the urgency usually reserved for shoot-ups and pop stars. Apparently, 70 or 64 or 99 per cent of Torontonians or Haligonians or work-to-rule teachers or disaffected nurses or guys sleeping on grates on Bay Street supported, craved and were desperate to have the Olympics.

Meanwhile, the good people ofToronto

were subjected to a fusillade of ads, trinkets and, of course, requisite Internet bumf. A June 21 “article” on an updated daily Toronto Summer Games Web site started: “Public support is a big part of any Bid City’s campaign. Inspired by many of our readers who send us e-mail daily with questions about pins and souvenirs. ...” The city can’t win the Olympics or keep its emergency rooms open, was embarrassed in front of the whole world by Mayor Mel’s boiledin-water-in-Africa verbal effluvia even as it spent millions of public and private dollars flying bigwigs all

over the world, but the real story here is citizen demand for a variety of brooches!

Throughout the bid process, we citizens were treated not as equal partners with a say and a vote, but as minority stakeholders never shown the whole picture. One independent chartered accountant who assessed bid finances predicted a possible $1-billion deficit. This didn’t prevent city council from endorsing the bid 54 to 2 with nothing but the guarantee that the people of Ontario (including, presumably, Toronto) would end up taping up windows and paying the global phone bill after the party. Past Olympics overruns were in the billions. “Successful” Sydney spent at least $1.3 billion more than predicted, and we won’t even bring up Montreal.

But, hey, why worry? See this giant cheque? See the spectacle of Chretien, Harris and Lastman (working together for the first time ever) dangling $1.5 billion in waterfront-development dollars before the only city in North America whose chronically underfunded transit system runs solely with municipal funds? Now that’s the Olympic spirit at work, and if you don’t like it you can send an e-mail to our Web site and we’ll have one of our customer service representatives contact you within 48 hours to respond to all your misguided concerns. Just keep your mouth shut in a smile, lest your complaints cause the slowly declining stocks to suddenly plummet.

And make no mistake: Toronto’s stock has been falling. There are the obvious menu items such as crippling urban sprawl (comes with side orders of thick

smog and traffic snarls), skyrocketing housing costs (would you like highrise Scarborough ghettos and property tax increases for dessert?) and shaky public services (free with your meal: a scenic ride past school fields pleasantly barren of cluttering after-class activities). We can’t hold the bid responsible for all our city’s woes. But we can certainly argue that a bid for the Olympics is hardly the answer to a blundered forced amalgamation, successive years of riots, protests and strikes, declining services and rising costs, and professional sports teams that raise their prices without delivering the prizes. Is it any wonder that we Torontonians are tired, exhausted, stricken with a post-Olympics-bid malaise? And who can blame us?

Last week, I left my apartment, passed the man sleeping on cardboard in the alley and waited for the streetcar next to a giant sidewalk pothole at least three months old (it would only get fixed after someone fell in it). Meanwhile, more than 200 Toronto bid representatives were in Moscow for a final $2-million party to push the bid. The entourage included Jean, Mike and Mel as well as the standard indigenous people’s representation. (Who can blame the Mississaugas of the New Credit native band for accepting a swank free trip to Russia?) Did I mention the all-night bid bash featuring free bands, laser show and breakfast at an entertainment complex on Lake Ontario?

So much effort and expense, but for what?

Don’t pity the bid builders. Theirs may have been a futile task, but they were well fed, well entertained, well paid. Pity the people ofToronto, whose town isn’t what it used to be, whose unrelenting problems were obscured and possibly exacerbated by a doomed Olympic bid that spent millions convincing us it would be a privilege to lose billions.

After finally being liberated from the socalled Arts & Culture news conference, I strolled along Yonge, thinking about a closed-doors process that paid pretend homage to discussion and inclusivity while sticking us with the bill for a 600-

page doorstop of a bid book, and that much less money and initiative to deal with the next strike, arrogant downloading or mayoral gaffe. I was cold and tired. But the snow was swirling around the flashing lights, covering up the fissures threatening to crack the foundations. A buoyant young couple threw handfuls of white powder at each other, whooping and running past the crowded restaurants and bars. This was the energy of the city I love, the vitality that our bid builders figured they could harness to their promises. Walking up the

longest street in the world, I thought to myself, What if we could harness that energy, use it to deal with, not deflect, our problems? What if, after a long sleep, we could wake up out of the Olympic bid hangover and finally get down to the business of rebuilding? In a city used to repeated disappointments, we residents of Toronto cling to the past and the future, wait for the present bad news to diminish like just another smog warning.

Hal Niedzviecki’s first novel, Ditch, a cybersex coming-ofage tale set in big-city Toronto, will be published by Random House Canada Ltd. in August.