When I saw the headline of an article in CBC News last week, entitled: “Pan Am Games could boost a Toronto Olympic bid, IOC President says”, I half-chuckled to myself. With the exception of India, Thomas Bach has spoken positively about every single city of which a theoretical Olympic bid at some point is muted, and as well he might because it is his mission to generate as much interest as possible.
Bach’s response on this occasion was a usual one of cautious optimism. “I think Toronto could be a good candidate but we still have to see now the Pan American Games, how it's working here," he said. "The Pan Am Games can give a boost to a [Olympic] candidate."
Yes, but that is so vague, I thought to myself. And if they are going to bid, it surely won’t be for 2024 but for 2028 or even 2032…
Yet, after attending the subsequent Canada Olympic Excellence Day in Montreal and opening few days of the Games here, it has become increasingly clear how determined many officials are to launch a bid, and how the 2024 race is being targeted, not necessarily just to gain experience for a more concerted future attempt but with a view to mounting a serious challenge.
Marcel Aubut, the ebullient Canadian Olympic Committee President, repeatedly spoke of these ambitions in Montreal, drawing comparisons with Rio de Janeiro's use of the 2007 Pan American Games as a stepping stone to its successful 2016 bid. While this was fairly unsurprising, the fact that Toronto Mayor John Tory was so enthusiastic is more noteworthy, with the politician speaking positively of such an attempt both in public and in his private meeting with Bach.
The city finished second behind Beijing in the race for 2008 and third behind Atlanta and Athens in the battle for 1996, remember, but this revived enthusiasm represents a remarkable change in attitude from just 18 months ago, when an Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to defer a bid for the 2024 Olympics.
Both bidding and preparing for the event was seen as far too expensive, with then Mayor Rob Ford predicting it could be "15 years at least" before the City would realistically consider hosting the Olympics.
So far as I can see, there have been three significant changes since then.
First, the replacement of the controversial Ford - a character best known internationally for being at the centre of a substance abuse scandal - with the much more pro-Olympic Tory as the city’s Mayor.
Second, the completion of development projects associated with the Pan American Games, and positive impact on the local population, something that will undoubtedly have also contributed to the Mayoral change of heart. Ten new sports facilities have been built and 15 existing ones have undergone renovation work, for instance, while there has been widespread improvement to the city’s transport infrastructure, including a new rail link having been developed linking the city centre with Pearson Airport.
Third, the impact of the IOC’s Agenda 2020 reform process, a modernisation drive which had barely begun when the January 2014 red light was given. While we have been necessarily sceptical about just how much change Agenda 2020 has introduced, it has largely achieved its primary objective of reinvigorating interest in the Olympic Movement and destroying old preconceptions about the rigidity of the bidding and organising process.
Key has been the enhanced flexibility introduced as part of the reform drive. While before bids had to be conducted in a certain way to meet pre-determined IOC criteria, now cities are encouraged to shape a bid as they wish. Taking advantage of existing venues outside the city centre, for example, something which would certainly appeal to Ontario officials given the wide spread of venues for the Pan American Games.
With enthusiasm for the bid in place, what chance then does it have?
An editorial in the Toronto Star on Saturday (July 11) was entitled: “Why Toronto should bid for the 2024 Olympics”; listing the many benefits the ongoing Pan American Games have supposedly brought the city before hailing how there has never been a better time to launch a bid.
This in itself is interesting and can be compared with the situation in Boston, where the local press has been mainly strongly opposed to the bid. The same could be said of Oslo’s ill-fated attempt for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics last year, where a vocal media was a key arm in assisting opposition groups.
On this occasion, neither the press nor the public would be unanimously supportive of a Toronto bid but I feel they would be largely so. Of course, this is by no means enough to win a race but, rather like the first round of a golfing major, it is a vital pre-requisite of avoiding defeat.
Toronto also boasts other advantages. The city is big, among the largest Pan American Games hosts in history and the third biggest city in North America, meaning it would certainly have the physical capacity to cope with hosting demands. Due to the anti-American sentiments which still prevail in much of the non-Western world - possibly to a greater extent in sport this year following the FBI’s intervention in the FIFA scandal - being in Canada rather than the US could also be an advantage.
A similar sort of bid and part of the world but with less political and historical baggage, perhaps.
Then we have the aforementioned problems with Boston. I had the pleasure of meeting the bid’s new chief Steve Pagliuca last week and was impressed. He seemed comfortable in the Olympic world and was persuasive in arguing how and why public support would turn.
Since then, however, another poll has come out showing support is as low as ever, and however much sugar-coating officials give about superior state-wide support in Massachusetts, the point is that it is not really improving in the city and the opposition is as unified and organised as ever.
Rather like voters in the British General Election not admitting to having opted for the Conservatives in the privacy of the polling booth, you can now barely find a United States Olympic Committee (USOC) official who will privately admit to having chosen Boston, I have been told, and it is clear what many of us thought at the time about the wrong city having been chosen is surely now a view held by many of them as well.
It will not be easy to turn back now to another city like Los Angeles, however, but nor is it advisable to stick with Boston while these problems remain.
Given this dilemma, a race that everyone said was the United States’ to lose is currently being lost and this opens the door for other cities: Paris, Hamburg, Baku, Budapest, Rome…and Toronto?
It remains possible we are getting overly caught up in the early success of the Pan American Games. The US could recover its momentum or Toronto could lose theirs, perhaps, or decide to hold fire until 2028 after all.
But at the moment the Canadian city is on the rise and could just be manoeuvring itself into a position of strength with two months to go until the application deadline.