Knowing when to fold ’em on an Olympic bid

Mayor John Tory outlines the reasons why they've come to the decision that the city of Toronto will not submit a bid for the 2024 Olympics.

We never bothered to get a dog before taking the big leap and becoming parents. The logic of those who do is understandable: Fido as practice kid. Feed him, keep him alive, remember the doggy bags, foist him on the in-laws for the odd weekend away — do all of that and maintain house and home, and you’re good to breed people.

Then you hatch the actual kids and get halfway to broke raising them, and you realize these things aren’t pets. You’re in the big leagues. Get a little deeper into the process and you realize that what you put into the endeavour is no guarantee of what you’ll get out of it. Gambler or not, you’ve made the biggest bet of your life. Having a dog taught you how to be a dog owner. Being a parent taught you humility.

These life lessons came to mind in the dewy afterglow of the Pan Am Games. In the leadup, there was a fair amount of trepidation — somewhere between fear-and-loathing and general indifference. But the Games Toronto didn’t want and barely understood swept the city away like a hit summer pop song. Or maybe the loudest complainers had just said their piece and skipped town.

But then Kia Nurse became a folk hero, Andre De Grasse proved worthy of his next-big-thing buzz and CBC ended up looking like the bad guy for not remembering that we’ll watch Canadians beat Americans at anything. Baseball? Basketball? Our water skiers over their water skiers? Yup, we like it.

By the time Kanye threw the mic, we’d pretty much concluded there were worse ways to spend $2.5 billion or so, and it was just a summer thing anyway. And hey, Milton got a velodrome, which could be a fun activity with the kids on a rainy Sunday in November.

But you see how this works? A few good weeks with the Pan Am Games and suddenly everyone had the googly eyes. Toronto mayor John Tory and Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut were pushing — with Aubut saying he’d use the “full power of his office” — toward a 2024 Summer Games bid, which sounded more like a threat than a promise. But we’re vulnerable right now. (Editor’s note: Toronto Mayor John Tory has confirmed that the city will not bid on the 2024 Olympics)

We’re good with how the Pan Am Games went down, so we think: Maybe it really is the right time to have an Olympics. Maybe it’s time to graduate from the dog park to the playground.

The difference is that no one should be in the throes of passion when they decide to have an international sports festival. (Heck, people probably shouldn’t be when they decide to have kids, either, but these things happen.) And let’s not confuse taking the Pan Am Games for a walk with giving birth to the Olympics.

They’ve never been a bargain, but for a while there, the Olympics made a certain kind of sense as a way to get a few things done around a country — a highway here or there and maybe a monorail. It’s like how having a big party becomes the excuse for painting a house that needed painting anyway. But now it’s also become about shaming other continents into a bankruptcy deeper and more desperate than your own so that people a world away can go, “Hey, aren’t you guys having the Olympics?” and then forget all about them a week after the torch is extinguished. It’s a luxury-brand spending spree disguised as an infrastructure project.

And, as with kids, once you have them, budgets get tossed out the window. A few years back Oxford’s business school determined the Olympics turned nations into drunken sailors every single time: “The Games overrun with 100 per cent consistency,” the study reads. “Other project types are typically on budget from time to time, but not the Olympics (and) with an average cost overrun in real terms of 179 per cent — and 324 per cent in nominal terms . . . . The data thus show that for a city and nation to decide to host the Olympic Games is to take on one of the most financially risky types of megaproject that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril.”

Again, no exceptions: Athens, Beijing, London, Sochi — it doesn’t matter. They spent way more than they planned.

But surely the Japanese can get this right, right? No. After promising a “cheap” Olympics in 2020, they’re already looking like they’ll be three times over budget. And we would need a whole other column to catalogue what’s gone on in Rio. The good people of Boston came to their senses and quit their 2024 bid, recognizing that they’d spend all their money — plus, it wouldn’t matter anyway if the Red Sox sucked.

And as for the smell of victory overcoming the financial stink, as in Vancouver or at the recently completed Pan Ams? Don’t count on it. Yes, Canada won 217 medals at the Pan Ams — good for second place — while our 14 golds in 2010 led all nations. In each case, we could point to our spot at or near the top of the medal table and feel better about our debt. But the Winter Games are rigged in favour of the handful of countries that are into snow and ice in a big way, and the Pan Ams are the rookie league to the major league that is the Summer Games.

Canada won 18 medals in London and just one gold, which left us in 26th spot overall. When Montreal hosted the 1976 Games we didn’t even get that far, netting 11 medals in total but failing to top even a single podium. The world pitched a shutout, and then it took us 40 years to pay it off.

The events hadn’t even begun when Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau said the 1976 Olympics could no more finish with a deficit than a man could have a baby.

We know how that worked out.

This column originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine.

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