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Olympic bids are about more than just money

07/30/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/29/2016 05:59 EDT
The summer of 2024 seems a long way off, but for cities vying to host the Olympic games that year, the clock is ticking. Loudly.

The deadline to file a letter of intention with the International Olympic Committee for 2024 is Sept. 15, less than two months away.

Toronto is rumoured to be one of the cities mulling a bid, but it may be giving it some sober second thought after Boston's decision this week to pull out.

"An Olympic bid is not for the faint of heart," says former Olympic runner and University of Toronto professor Bruce Kidd, who is also a member the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Kidd calls the decision to bid on the Games a "complex calculation" that requires "extensive consultation" and broad support from more than just city council.

Pay to play

In announcing that his city would not be bidding for the 2024 games, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh cited the potential for cost overruns and a lack of public support.

"No benefit is so great that it is worth handing over the financial future of our city and our citizens were rightly hesitant to be supportive as a result," said Walsh on the city's website.

Boston didn't have to look far for an example of Olympic spending gone wild. Just weeks ago, Japan was in full panic mode as costs to build the main stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics leapt from the original estimate of $1 billion to $2 billion.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended up scrapping the project, sending it back to the drawing board for a more cost-effective design.

While Japan is already running full speed on the Olympic spending track, others have been too spooked to even lace up.

In the last year, a number of cities, including Oslo and Stockholm, bowed out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics after failing to elicit financial support from their governments. Potential bids from Germany and Switzerland were scuttled after citizens voted against it in referendums.  

Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan are the only two cities in the running for 2022. 

It takes a village

The list of considerations that go into a city's decision to make a formal bid is long, says Kidd, who becomes nearly breathless rhyming them off.

Any bid must "simultaneously, significantly advance sport and physical activity for the city region, economic development, urban effectiveness, environmental sustainability, strengthened cultural, intercultural awareness."

The bid itself ties up a city's major investment priorities and infrastructure decisions for as long as 20 years, he says.

When Vancouver began organizing a bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it started planning as far back as 1996, according to former VANOC president and CEO John Furlong. 

"This is an enormous project. Next to a war, it's the biggest mobilization of people in the world," he says.

Furlong recalls the late Jack Poole, who was head of the VANOC bid committee that was responsible for bringing the 2010 games to the city.

Poole believed that to take on something as ambitious and challenging as an Olympics, it had to be done with as many friends and supporters as possible, says Furlong. That meant bringing people on board not only in the city and province, but from around the country and the world.

"This is a job for the many and not the few," says Furlong.

Building a legacy 

One thing Vancouver learned from staging the 2010 games, says Furlong, is that bidding for the games is not a vision in and of itself.  

He says organizers have to dream big and come up with a "bucket list" of what the city could look like long after the event.

"We built the venues for the future and then we placed the Olympics in them until the games were over, and it worked beautifully."

That's different from the 1976 summer games in Montreal, which are held up as a perennial cautionary tale by Olympic spoilsports. Montrealers call the city's infamous Olympic Stadium "The Big Owe" after it became a permanent reminder of the $1.5 billion dollar tab the games left behind. It was finally paid off three decades later, in December 2006.

Support network

Getting the public on board to host what is a notoriously pricey endeavour can be a tough sell in a weak economy.

A recent study out of Oxford University looked at the cost of hosting the past 17 Olympics and found costs sailed past their original estimates 100 per cent of the time. For a summer games, that meant an average final tally two-and-a-half times the original advertised price.

Years ago, it was much easier to convince people to back an Olympic bid because it was a way of putting a city or a region on the map, such as Calgary when it staged the 1988 Winter Olympics.

But things have changed, says Olympic historian Kevin Wamsley.

"It's more common now that you see people are willing to raise a fuss to say, 'We're not doing this, it's not tenable, because financially you should be investing in our economy and making jobs for people and these short-term, glamorous solutions just aren't going to cut it,'" says Wamsley.

What's more, he says, governments are listening.

And so is the IOC, says Kidd.

"The IOC is not going to put an Olympics in a city where there's not a wide and deep consensus of support and these days in a liberal democratic country, they're looking for something like a plebiscite."

Getting real

If Toronto is serious about a bid, time is not on its side in terms of dreaming up the vision and drumming up support.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says he won't even entertain the idea until the Para Pan Am games are finished on Aug. 15. That leaves exactly one month to declare candidacy.

John Furlong doesn't see that as a huge problem. "Time may not look like it's your friend, but it isn't absolutely your enemy, either."

If Toronto does go for it, Kidd says he's willing to weigh in on the "yes" side. But his hypothetical backing comes with a caveat.

"It's got to be a responsible bid and there's got to be a real buy-in from more than just the Olympic loonies like me."

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