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Let's Put a Stop to the Pan Scam Games

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What a surprise. Not.

Paul Henderson (not Paul Henderson the hockey player who scored the winning goal for Team Canada in 1972, but the Paul Henderson who fronted Toronto's 1996 Olympic Bid) recently caused a commotion in the sporting community. He sent an open letter to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty warning that the 2015 Pan American Games could come in at least a billion dollars over budget.

According to Henderson, the $2.4 billion budget is unrealistic, given the scope of proposed new buildings and facility renovations. Organizers, he argues, have also failed to accurately budget for numerous "soft costs" such as extra policing. In fact, the price tag might be more than double the original estimate.

Look, I don't want to say "I told you so" (actually, that's not true. I love saying "I told you so"), but ever since Toronto first announced it wanted to host the 2015 Games, I've been sounding the alarm that the Pan Am Games is a dog. And a dog with fleas.

For years, Toronto's 2015 Pan Am Games Committee promised this athletic "gala" would prove to be an enormous shot in the arm for the city. For starters, the committee claimed the Pan Am Games would generate close to $2 billion in economic activity -- building the facilities alone will supposedly create 17,000 jobs.

And the games will lure an estimated 250,000 tourists to the GTA. (Yes, apparently there's a quarter-million sports fans out there with a severe case of "Pan Am Fever." And if you believe that whopper, I'm currently taking offers on a bridge currently for sale in a certain New York City borough...)

According to Toronto's Pan Am prophets, going full-speed ahead with a multi-billion dollar investment during dire economic times actually makes good fiscal sense.

David Peterson, former Ontario premier and current Pan Am promoter, crowed awhile back that snagging the Pan Am Games was all about "building a sustainable legacy."

Hate to be a party pooper, but don't believe the hype.

Here's four reasons why Toronto should do whatever it can to pull out of hosting the 2015 Pan Scam Games:

1. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong economic conditions

Funding a bread-and-circuses gala such as the Pan Scam Games is a bad idea in good times. But in a less than stellar economy, it's truly awful. When Winnipeg hosted the games in heady 1999, the city reported an operating loss; meanwhile, a hoped-for increase in tourism to offset this loss never did materialize. Keep in mind that Toronto's debt load is already pegged at nearly $3-billion.

In addition to all levels of government investing hundreds of millions, the Toronto committee is counting on corporate sponsorship money. But from whom? Even the likes of NASCAR and Formula One are having trouble keeping all their blue chip sponsors on board. Who's chomping at the bit to back the Pan Scam Games?

2. What "legacy"?
Proponents of the Pan Scam Games speak glowingly of the "legacy" the facilities will have long after the games are over. Really? One of the required multimillion infrastructure nuggets Toronto must construct for 2015 is a velodrome for cycling. How curious that less than 15 years after Montreal hosted the 1976 Olympic Games, a chainsaw was taken to the teak track of the Montreal velodrome to convert that facility into a zoological garden. That city's now-obsolete Olympic Stadium, meanwhile, has been already abandoned by its major tenants. Wow, what a legacy!

3. The fiscal folly of mega-projects
As just about every Olympic Games has proven, the estimated budget for constructing facilities is always ridiculously low only to balloon into the stratosphere once the concrete starts to pour. And take a wild guess who's always left holding the bag? Indeed, in the book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, author Christopher A. Shaw notes the original estimate for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games was $1.68 billion in construction costs plus an additional $580 million in operating costs. As it turned out, the Vancouver construction costs alone topped an astonishing $5 billion.

Torontonians have already experienced mega-project sticker shock courtesy of the SkyDome. This whiz-bang multipurpose stadium was supposed to cost about $150 million, although the final tally was closer to $600 million. Oddly, unlike every other piece of downtown Toronto real estate over the past two decades, SkyDome's market value actually plunged over the years, allowing Rogers Communications to purchase it for a mere $25 million in 2004. Incredible!

4. Nobody cares about the Pan Am Games
Finally, the most persuasive argument against staging the Pan Am Games is that nobody cares about the Pan Am Games -- including the athletes who compete in the Pan Am Games. Indeed, at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, the U.S. team was comprised of second stringers. Meanwhile, media coverage of the event was virtually non-existent. Granted, decades ago, there was a time when the Pan Am Games meant something and managed to attract some of the best amateur athletes. But these days, when it's not an Olympic year, most elite amateur athletes focus exclusively on their own world championship games. The Pan Am Games are irrelevant.

Poor Toronto. Spurned twice by the International Olympic Committee, it gets the Pan Scam Games as a consolation prize. It is reminiscent of the sales competition depicted in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross: First prize: Cadillac Eldorado; Second prize: set of steak knives.

The Pan Am Games is a set of rusty steak knives -- and a costly set at that. Indeed, the spectre of brand new, multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded edifices devoid of spectators for athletic events nobody wants to see (handball, anyone?) is downright vulgar in this day of fiscal restraint.

Here's hoping Toronto will do the right thing and bail on the Pan Am Games -- the athletic world's version of a pig in a poke.

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