Touring the Pan Am Athletes' Village
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Touring the Pan Am Athletes’ Village

International athletes break in the West Don Lands neighbourhood.

It Takes a Village… from Giordano Ciampini on Vimeo.

It’s easy to simultaneously feel impressed and cynical while wandering the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletes’ Village. Impressed by the transformation of industrial land into what will hopefully become a thriving new neighbourhood. Cynical about elements of the presentation over 10,000 participants will experience, and why we rely on such events to speed up local improvements.

For those accessing the site in the West Don Lands, the journey begins at “Welcome Centre” on Trinity Street. In this case, “welcome” means entering a large white tent to be greeted by a re-enactment of the airport security experience. Once checked and registered, it’s a quick trip out the back door into the village proper.

The first attraction is the plaza at the southwest corner of Front and Cherry. Athletes can socialize with friends and family in this open space without leaving the confines of the village. As each country arrives on the grounds, a flag-raising ceremony will occur. Besides daily live entertainment, the plaza offers a mini strip mall. Lead sponsor CIBC will mix coffee and provide cash machines onsite. Peering into the window of the Loblaws pop-up store, we noticed familiar red discount stickers, making us wonder if the grocery giant will offer deeper discounts on President’s Choice goodies than usual. A fake bedroom will allow media to interview athletes in a homey setting, sparing the competitors from showing off the secrets of their private quarters.

There’s even a hair and nail salon, which isn’t as eye-rolling as it seems. “It sounds silly,” former Olympic swimmer and TO2015 organizing committee member Julia Wilkinson noted on the media tour, “but in order to perform at your best, the athletes want it to be like their regular routine.”

Kitty corner from the plaza is a venue which definitely fits into an athlete’s routine: the Cooper Koo Family Cherry Street YMCA. The 82,000 square foot facility offers workout equipment, a pool, and other facilities to prep the competitors. It also includes mysterious office spaces such as the “Incubator of Awesomeness” room. While that won’t stick around post-games, the Y’s impressive offerings should draw users from the new developments, along with residents of nearby areas like Corktown, Leslieville, and south Riverdale.

Heading east along Front Street, athletes will enjoy two public art installations overseen by Waterfront Toronto (a third will be ready next year). Tadashi Kawamata’s Toronto Lamp Posts was inspired by the artist’s observation of the different styles of street lamps across the city’s neighbourhoods. A bundle of posts are clustered together like a game of pick-up sticks. The other work, Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins’ Water Guardians, features giant blue figures with LED eyes standing atop bouncy playground surfacing kids of all ages will enjoy.

Tapping into one’s inner child, or fierce competitive spirit, will be displayed in the games tent. Participants will cut loose via air hockey, foosball, pinball, pool, and sit-down video game classics—what will be the record Pan Am high school for Ms. Pac-Man?

There will also be opportunities to goof around in the athlete’s lounge, whether it’s making faces in the instant photo booth or figuring out how to get in and out of the jumbo hammocks. Both of these activities may be accomplished with the help of a drink from a drink counter serving nothing but Glacéau Vitaminwater.

The lounge has been dubbed “The Cabin,” part of an overall village theme that evokes cottage country for participants—murals throughout the site reinforce the rustic theme. Adirondack/Muskoka chairs rule the landscape, from rows of them on the green across from the lounge, to the monster-sized one in the plaza. On the plus side, athletes will never experience the joy of weekend traffic to Muskoka. But it makes one wonder why, given all that Toronto has to offer, organizers of international events are addicted to bringing a touch of the cottage to the city. It’s also hard not to be reminded of the last time such an event tried to recreate cottage country: the fake lake at the G20 summit.

For those who can’t live without man-made bodies of water, participants will be the only people allowed into Corktown Common until late August. The decision to close one of the city’s best new parks to the public for most of the summer for exclusive, secure Pan Am use sends mixed messages about the relation between the games and ongoing city life. Commuters upset with dealing with games-spawned traffic chaos may be tempted to storm the park.

For village residents, experiencing the city might only extend as far as enjoying a great view of the downtown skyline, and studying banners within the main dining hall, which depict local landmarks like Honest Ed’s. With exception of the unending salad bar, which honours Niagara, the serving stations are named after Toronto neighbourhoods. Little Italy offers pasta and pizza, St. Lawrence specializes in grilled meats ranging from chorizo to lamb chops, and Spadina provides Asian fare. Anti-big box activists in Kensington Market may be disturbed to learn that their stomping grounds have been dubbed “Kensington Power Market.” The selection of food is impressive, catering to all diet types. The cottage country influence is less evident here than elsewhere in the village; as far as we can tell, Weber’s burgers aren’t on the menu.

The athletes will sleep in future condos whose current décor would warm an IKEA designer’s heart. Everything so screams IKEA that only the Swedish product names are missing. We can’t wait to get our hands on “Atlet” green comforters illustrated with outlines of sporty types. George Brown College might be tempted to keep some around for its new student residence on the grounds.

While the atmosphere in the athletes’ residences may be relaxed, we suspect the trailers housing the polyclinic will be buzzing as injured competitors are brought in. A full range of onsite medical services, from a family pharmacy to a mobile MRI unit, will relieve city hospitals of the need to care for participants.

During a dining hall press conference on media day, Mayor John Tory was asked why it takes major events such as Pan Am to push forward projects like the West Don Lands and the Union Pearson Express. Tory replied that when he was asked why he backed previous Olympic or exposition bids, his answer was “deadlines.” “It is human nature,” the mayor noted, “to put off these things until you can no longer put them off.”

But why should we rely on these spectacles to rouse politicians out of their inertia? Just because glamour, especially athletic glory, isn’t attached to a transit line or land redevelopment doesn’t make those projects less vital to the functioning of the city. An international spotlight shouldn’t be the only reason we put aside the eternal arguments which slow down major city improvements.

The athletes’ village is a nice way to break in a new neighbourhood. We just shouldn’t wait for the next international event to rehearse similar areas in the future.