Bidding for the Summer Olympics
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Bidding for the Summer Olympics

Reviewing Toronto's five previous attempts to display the Olympic rings.

Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 19, 1990

Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 19, 1990.

As the 1952 Summer Olympics wound down in Helsinki, Canadian Olympic Association (COA) president A. Sidney Dawes believed our country was nowhere near ready to win the games. Beyond lacking international grade facilities, Dawes believed pitching was pointless until the Canadian public demonstrated greater interest in amateur sport.

Dawes’s concern would echo through time as a factor cited in Toronto’s multiple failures in securing the Summer Olympics. But our five bids have been plagued by other issues, including disorganization, social justice activism, and not being obsequious enough to International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials. Above all, our bids reflect not so much our desire to spotlight athletic glory as to figure out what to do with Toronto’s waterfront, and to massage worries about being perceived as a world class city.

As academic Robert D. Oliver observes, “If forced to draw a single conclusion, it is reasonable to suggest that Toronto has developed a legacy of Olympic begging, a situation that reveals quite a bit about the practice of politics in Toronto.”

1960: Communication Breakdown

Letter supporting Toronto’s bid for the 1960 Summer Olympics from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent. City of Toronto Archives.

Toronto’s Summer Olympics bid emerged from losing the 1954 British Empire Games to Vancouver. The charge was led by Mayor Allan Lamport, who had been instrumental in thawing laws outlawing Sunday sports in the city, and former mayor/IOC membership nominee Robert Hood Saunders. “We sincerely feel that Toronto’s size and population, fine athletic facilities, the warm hospitality of its people, and its convenient geographic location,” Lamport wrote in the official invite he composed in April 1954, “would contribute to the success of the Games and merit your kind consideration in the selection of the site for the 1960 Olympiad.”

Estimates showed $6.3 million in costs and $4 million in revenues. Ceremonies would occur in an expanded CNE Grandstand, while existing venues such as Maple Leaf Gardens, Maple Leaf Stadium, Riverdale Park, and Varsity Arena would hold competitions. A pool would be built in an unspecified location.

When Lamport and Saunders attended the IOC’s annual meeting in Athens, they learned that invitations were only received every four years, the next opportunity being the next year’s gathering in Paris. A mandatory questionnaire was sent in October 1954 to Saunders, who became the point man for all material received from the IOC.

That questionnaire went unanswered. Following Saunders’s death in a plane crash in January 1955, confusion reigned over the state of the bid. When the city failed to return the questionnaire by the March 1 deadline, Toronto was automatically removed from consideration.

Canadian Olympic Association reception at Mayor Nathan Phillips’s Office, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 3, Item 2.

Except the IOC didn’t immediately inform Toronto officials that the bid was toast. Anyone with an inkling of what had happened kept quiet as planning rolled along. An Olympic committee formed in late March 1955 to advise new mayor Nathan Phillips. The Board of Control authorized Phillips to send someone to deliver the official invite to the IOC in Paris in May. The mayor preferred handing the duty to the Canadian ambassador to France—Phillips was informed earlier in the month by CNE sports committee chairman Harry Price that Dawes believed the city shouldn’t send anyone, as a Toronto victory would be the second in a row for a British Commonwealth country.

The April 14 city parks and recreation committee meeting revealed a phone discussion between Dawes and Price nearly a month earlier. Dawes has asked about the missing questionnaire, then handed Price the bad news. Beyond missing the deadline, Dawes indicated that the city had not buttered up IOC officials enough:

Mr. Dawes also suggested that any publicity material on the City of Toronto should be forwarded to each member of the IOC, and he also suggested that a very nice gesture would be for the City to send a souvenir lighter with the City of Toronto crest on it, to each member of the IOC. Mr. Dawes stated that over the years he has been regularly receiving very attractive souvenirs from cities contemplating Olympic invitations.

Phillips, who was in Miami Beach, was stunned. He knew nothing about the questionnaire, believing the city could wait until Paris to make its move. “If I thought for one minute that it would enhance our chances, I would either go or suggest that someone else go to represent the city,” he told the Telegram. “But I’m averse to spending the taxpayers’ money on what might be a wild goose chase.”

1964: The Phantom Bid

Letter from International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage to Nathan Phillips, July 20, 1955. City of Toronto Archives.

Despite the collapse of the 1960 bid, city officials were immediately urged to try for the 1964 games. Dawes noted that the city required “considerable propaganda work” to succeed. “Canada’s prestige today is very great all over the world and I believe this can also be said about her standing in Olympic affairs,” Dawes wrote to city councillor Joseph Cornish in June 1955.” When Toronto’s bid is put in, my present thinking is that the decision may rest between Lausanne and Toronto.”

Cornish recommended that Phillips write a letter to the IOC stating Toronto’s intentions for 1964. The mayor received a response from IOC President Avery Brundage, who indicated that invites wouldn’t be accept for a few more years, and that the best course was to stay in touch with Dawes. Translation: leave us alone for the near future.

With that, the city’s 1964 Olympic plans fall into the realm of amateur Sherlocks. In its roundup of Toronto’s bids, the Star claims it can’t find any stories to back it up. Our search turned a passing recommendation to bid from an English sports consultant published in the Globe and Mail in October 1958. Oliver observes that there was unease over the lack of international grade facilities, and continuing questions on how a bid would improve the waterfront.

Holding the Summer Olympics in the Great Lakes region was not in the cards for 1964. Detroit, who bid for the Olympics six times following the Second World War, finished a distant second behind Tokyo.

1976: Favouring Montreal

Source: Toronto Star, August 9, 1968

Source: Toronto Star, August 9, 1968.

Toronto’s next bid attempt launched in September 1967, when Mayor William Dennison authorized the creation of a joint city-Metro Toronto committee. Chaired by Lamport, it included political heavyweights like Metro Chairman William Allen and Metro Parks Commissioner Tommy Thompson. Montreal was already favoured based on the success of Expo 67. Lamport intended to ask Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau to back Toronto’s bid, given that we had supported their effort to land Expo.

Suburban councillors wanted Metro to control the bid. For some, like North York councillor Paul Godfrey, the bid process also presented an opportunity to investigate luring professional sports franchises to the region. Lamport supported passing his duties to Allen. By the end of November 1967, all five Metro boroughs, along with Hamilton, Oakville, Oshawa, and St. Catharines, supported a letter of intent to the COA. “Our job is to move ahead as fast and effectively as we can.” Allen observed. “We will make mistakes, but we will make decisions.”

A 55-page invite released in July 1968 proposed construction of a domed stadium and pool on the site of the recently vacated Maple Leaf Stadium, with the Harbour City waterfront redevelopment project serving as the Olympic Village. A backup site was proposed for land to be created around Ashbridge’s Bay and Woodbine Beach. New transportation infrastructure included reviving the age-old plan for a Queen Street subway line (estimated cost: $200 million), a monorail through Harbour City, and the replacement of Union Station. There were promises to make Toronto Canada’s national amateur sports capital through administrative offices, training facilities, and a series of annual “mini-Olympics” designed to raise our competitive level.

Source: Globe and Mail, August 1, 1968

Source: Globe and Mail, August 1, 1968.

The plan was coolly received in Hamilton, which prepared its own bid based on a site near the Burlington Skyway. Mayor Vic Copps dismissed the Toronto plan as a “fantasy.”

At the final presentation to the COA, bid officials stressed two points in favour of Toronto: financing which depended less on taxpayers than opposing bids, and the ability to house all athletes within five minutes of the major venues. But the odds seemed stacked in Montreal’s favour. Drapeau’s team was better at schmoozing, and it didn’t hurt that the majority of COA voters represented Quebec.

The first ballot cast on September 7, 1968 saw Montreal earn 18 votes, Toronto 16, Hamilton 2. On the second ballot, the Hamilton votes split, giving Montreal a 19-17 victory. The decisive vote was COA treasurer Bill Parish—as Telegram sports editor Charles McGregor put it, “Bill’s from Hamilton, and there’s a great rivalry between the two cities. A stupid rivalry. “

Civic officials in Toronto blamed the loss on the stacking of the COA. Lamport blasted Allen for running a cheap, one-man show. Allen wanted to press on with plans for a dome and amateur sports facilities, but the municipalities within Metro squabbled about stadium sites within days of losing the bid. “At times,” a Star editorial noted, “the parochialism of some of our Metro politicians is enough to make even the most loyal citizen wince in embarrassment.” The disunity seen immediately after the bid flopped made some observers wonder if full amalgamation of Metro wasn’t a bad idea.

Asked if Toronto would soon try again, Allen noted that if Montreal won the games, “that’s the end of Canada hosting the Olympics for this generation. There’s no guarantee that a second run would produce any different results than the first one.”

1996: Panis et Circenses

Cartoon, Toronto Star, August 21, 1986

Cartoon, Toronto Star, August 21, 1986.

A frequent clarification during the early days of the 1996 bid: Toronto Ontario Olympic Council CEO Paul Henderson was not the hockey hero of the 1972 Summit Series. This Paul Henderson was a former Olympic sailor whose networking skills produced an impressive roster of backers. “He’s the kind of guy,” Metro Chairman Dennis Flynn told the Star in 1986, “who tackles something and doesn’t let go until he has what he wants.” That tenacity helped and harmed Henderson over the five-year evolution of the bid.

Launched in 1986, the bid stressed points such as the region’s multicultural identity as a reflection of Olympic ideals, cultural riches, strong transit system (“the TTC being one of the cleanest, most efficient and comprehensive urban transit systems in the world”), and creating an environment of amateur sports excellence a la William Allen’s dreams during the 1960s. It also served as the latest blueprint for waterfront redevelopment, focusing on the area between Ontario Place and the recently-built SkyDome. The Olympic Village would consist of 20 low-rise residential buildings located in the former railway lands currently occupied by CityPlace. A new 80,000 seat replacement for Exhibition Stadium would be reduced to 30,000 after the games for use as a cheaper, multi-use alternative to SkyDome. An aquatic centre would rise by Ontario Place. Outside the core, Etobicoke’s Centennial Park would receive a velodrome, while basketball matches would take place in the Canada Coliseum, a new arena already planned for land the Weston family owned in North York. Events would stretch as far as preliminary soccer matches in London and Sudbury. The final bid book, issued in February 1990, was a colourful celebration of the city which would have made a decent commemorative item.

Given the financial disaster of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, organizers promised debt-free games through, as a 1989 report put it, “moderate and strategic capital investment.” This would depend on maximizing corporate contributions, and limiting government input to elements like human resources and security. Estimates showed a cost of $1.053 billion and a profit of $10 million. A city report prepared in January 1990 showed that when estimates of indirect costs were factored in, the games would cost over $2.5 billion and produce a $90 million loss. As “As with any public budget,” bid board member Bruce Kidd noted, “there is a lot of deliberate mystification.”

Source: Toronto Sun, September 17, 1990

Source: Toronto Sun, September 17, 1990.

That response would have irritated the loudest opponent of the bid, the Bread Not Circuses (BNC) coalition of social activist groups. BNC raised the level of debate surrounding community benefits, asking for provisions regarding affordable housing and fiscal responsibility. “We’re saying that we want a better Toronto,“ claimed BNC spokesperson Michael Shapcott. “We don’t think that the Olympics can be stretched and pulled and pushed and manipulated enough to achieve that kind of vision.” Ignoring urgings from Henderson not to, the group sent its concerns to the IOC. BNC became a wedge, dividing public opinion on the merits of the bid.

That split filtered into tense debates at Toronto City Council. Mayor Art Eggleton and other bid backers raised temperatures by demanding unanimous support. By April 1990 most councillors were ready to kill the bid unless their conditions were met. Several wanted guarantees on the amount of social housing built. Others were persuaded when CN agreed to turn over the railway lands without demanding concessions on projects elsewhere—in Michael Walker’s case, this also involved turning over part of the Belt Line pathway to the city.

The final vote was 12–4. Three remaining opponents had NDP connections: Marilyn Churley, Elizabeth Amer (unhappy with financial risk despite provincial promise to cover losses), and Jack Layton (who wanted more social housing units). You can imagine the seizures Sun columnists suffered.

Source: Globe and Mail, September 7, 1990

Source: Globe and Mail, September 7, 1990.

Such opposition angered Henderson, who vilified anyone who didn’t think the bid was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He alienated some people through statements such as his admission during an interview with a York University student that half the profits would go to the COA, who could “piss away on whatever they do with it.” There was also a sense Henderson’s sales techniques went overboard, such as his declaration that the Toronto Islands were “a true island of peace” (which caused the Globe and Mail to observe he ignored harbour pollution).

One figure missing from the delegation sent to Tokyo in the run up to the final announcement in September 1990 was Ontario premier David Peterson, who had just lost his job to Bob Rae. The new premier supported the bid, but, feeling that he wasn’t fully up to speed, sent Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander in his place. Opponents accused Rae of casting his lot with BNC and Layton.

BNC sent two representatives to Tokyo to make their final pitch to IOC members. They made a splash on Japanese television when they were thrown out of the media’s hotel. Back home, they were criticized by the likes of Sun columnist Christie Blatchford, who tried to demonstrate their awfulness by depicting Shapcott as a hypocrite for having no problem with paying more for his co-op unit than Layton and Olivia Chow did.

Source: Toronto Sun, September 18, 1990  Also in picture are Lincoln Alexander and Art Eggleton

Source: Toronto Sun, September 18, 1990. Also in picture are Lincoln Alexander and Art Eggleton.

Around 4,000 people mulled around Skydome on September 18 to hear the result: Toronto placed third, behind sentimental favourite Athens and the winner, Atlanta. The blame game began immediately, and it wasn’t pretty. Henderson criticized BNC for being anti-Canadian and anti-Toronto. Councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski blamed Layton, citing BNC as a puppet front for his colleague. Layton felt the corporate power centred in Atlanta secured its victory. The Sun sneered at “socialists” who deprived the city of economic and social benefits. Star sports columnist Jim Proudfoot blamed several factors, ranging from the failure to build SkyDome as an Olympic-sized venue to Henderson’s individualistic campaigning style. (“Too much hung on his credibility as a self-styled Mr. Toronto.”)

“It is rather ironic that Toronto’s 1996 bid promoted the Olympics as an opportunity for diverse groups in the city—and beyond the municipality—to resolve differences and act as a catalyst for consensus, because the bid itself seemed to produce a social-psychological wound,” academic Robert D. Oliver later noted. “To an international audience Torontonians must have appeared as passionate sulkers.”

2008: Runner-up

Cartoon by Brian Gable, Globe and Mail, August 31, 2000

Cartoon by Brian Gable, Globe and Mail, August 31, 2000.

Buried in a box in the City of Toronto Archives is a binder containing the master plan for the 2008 Olympic bid and related city staff reports. The binder belonged to veteran councillor Anne Johnston, who left some handwritten notes. Below a section of the staff report outlining why Toronto was a worthy host, Johnston wrote “Negativism is the only thing that will kill it!”

To counteract opponents, bid organizers reviewed mistakes made by the previous bid. The initial public face was a respected one: former mayor David Crombie, who felt the Olympics would, besides the eternal waterfront revitalization component, cheer up a city suffering from post-amalgamation blues. “This is about city building for me,” Crombie told the Star in March 1998. He also believed all three levels of government had to work together to ensure success.

Also key was a social contract to appease naysayers. As it evolved, the bid included promises of up to 2,000 low income housing units, protection of the rights of the homeless, and policies to ensure no displacements of residents or major impositions on neighbourhoods.

When the COA approved Toronto’s bid later that year, it quietly imposed conditions which prevented Crombie from being the sole person at the reins of what was now known as TO-Bid. Crombie continued on as chairman, while John Bitove Jr. was named president and CEO. Bitove was seen as someone who got things done (such as the timely construction of the Air Canada Centre) and possessed strong connections at all levels of government. Chief operations officer Bob Richardson garnered good press for the bid, and was unapologetic about pushing the limits on rules regarding currying favour with IOC officials.

Cover of TO-Bid’s 2008 Master Plan. City of Toronto Archives.

TO-Bid made a list of infrastructure projects ranging from urgent temporary measures to long-term projects which would benefit the games. Note how many of the following projects materialized or are still under consideration:

  • Upgrades to Union Station, including a second subway platform
  • Construction of Fort York Boulevard (with a suggested alternative name of Nelson Mandela Way)
  • Extension of Queens Quay west to Ontario Place, and east to the Port Lands
  • Extension of Front West to the west
  • Underpass for Simcoe Street south of Front Street
  • Grade separation for Strachan Avenue
  • Elimination of the Dufferin Street jog
  • LRT service on Queens Quay East
  • Temporary GO station at Cherry Street
  • Soil remediation and realignment of the Don River in the Port Lands
  • The role of waterfront redevelopment made some observers wonder if the city wasn’t so much going for the Olympics as a spectacle as much as a lever to finally fix the age-old problem. The Waterfront Revitalization Task Force headed by Robert Fung ran concurrently with the major stages of the bid. When all three levels of government agreed to fund the games, they also promised to back waterfront renewal regardless of TO-Bid’s success. This ultimately led to what some might argue is the 2008 bid’s permanent legacy: Waterfront Toronto.

    Had we won, an Olympic stadium, aquatics centre, and athletes’ village would have risen in the Port Lands, while the media would have been housed in the West Don Lands. Most events would have clustered into three hubs termed as “rings”: Exhibition Place/Ontario Place, downtown, and the Port Lands.

    One loose cannon was Mayor Mel Lastman. Weeks before the final vote, Lastman told the press he wasn’t eager to visit IOC delegates in Kenya:

    What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? Snakes just scare the hell out of me. I’m sort of scared of going there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.

    While Lastman apologized for viewing Africa through the lens of old racist cartoons, TO-Bid officials hoped his ignorant remarks wouldn’t sink their pitch.

    They needn’t have worried. As many commentators pointed out after Toronto’s distant second place finish was announced on July 13, 1991, the fix was in for Beijing. It didn’t matter how technically strong Toronto’s bid was (even with hazy financial numbers), how outlandish Lastman was, or how many concerns there were about civil rights in China: IOC members believed that, having failed to win the 2000 games in a close vote, it was Beijing’s turn. There was great disappointment in the perceived failure of Canadian IOC representative Dick Pound to boost the bid. “We were there as window dressing, to fool the world into believing that every plucky underdog has a chance. We mostly fooled ourselves,” noted Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

    While egos were deflated, there doesn’t seem to have been as deep a sense of divisiveness as accompanied the 1996 bid.

    Front page, Toronto Sun, July 14, 2001

    Front page, Toronto Sun, July 14, 2001.

    If a bid is pursued for 2024, organizers could look to the best elements of past attempts, and build an aspirational pitch whose long-term effects will truly benefit city residents in terms of infrastructure and socially-conscious legacy projects. Or, as Metro’s Matt Elliott suggested this week, we could pursue a “Fakelympics” to bring about all the civic pride promised by an Olympic bid without the economic and moral costs of dealing with the IOC.

    Additional material from Toronto’s Proposal to Host the 1996 Olympic Games (report, issued June 1989); Toronto’s Proposal to Host the Games of the XXVIth Olympiad (report, issued February 1990); Toronto 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games Master Plan (report, issued November 1999); Toronto’s 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games Bid (City of Toronto Staff Report, February 11, 2000); “Toronto’s Olymoic Ambitions: An Investigation of the Olympic Bidding Legacy in one Modern City” by Robert D. Oliver (dissertation, 2011); the August 1, 1952, September 28, 1967, October 12, 1967, November 7, 1967, November 25, 1967, July 31, 1968, August 1, 1968, June 3, 1989, April 13, 1990, September 19, 1990, March 31, 1998, and July 14, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 13, 1990 edition of Maclean’s; the July 14, 2001 edition of the National Post; the September 5, 1968, September 9, 1968, September 11, 1968, October 5, 1986, September 11, 1990, and September 19, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star; the September 18, 1990, September 19, 1990, and July 9, 2001 editions of the Toronto Sun; the April 15, 1955 and September 9, 1968 editions of the Telegram; and correspondences held by the City of Toronto Archives.