Toronto sprints hard to win 2008 Games

But Beijing is favored to take gold in tomorrow's vote on who will host the Olympics.

On the eve of the International Olympic Committee's decision on where to hold the 2008 Games, the smart money is on Beijing.

Well, OK, almost all the money is on Beijing.

But as the signs and banners all over town here insist, Toronto is in the running, too. Its supporters are hoping against hope that tomorrow's voting in Moscow goes to enough rounds for their dark horse to pull ahead and win.

"I think Beijing is still in the lead. It was from the beginning, and that's still the case," says David Crombie, a former mayor of the city now serving as chairman of the Toronto Olympic Bid Committee.

That Canadian modesty aside, Toronto can - and does - make a good case: It would offer one of the most compact Olympic venues in recent history, with most sports housed within four miles of a waterfront Olympic Village. Approximately 74 percent of the necessary facilities have already been built. Toronto is in the same time zone as the Eastern United States - no small point for broadcasters.

More grandly, perhaps, Haroon Siddiqui, editorial-page editor emeritus at the Toronto Star, suggests that this ethnically diverse and peaceable city deserves the Games because "we live the Olympic ideal every day - we come together in a spirit of peaceful competition."

He continues, "The only way Toronto can lose is if they give it to Beijing to drag them toward democracy and human rights." Which, he acknowledges, might just happen.

However the decision goes - and Paris, Istanbul, Turkey, and Osaka, Japan, are also contenders - hosting the Olympics is often a defining moment for a city. The 1992 Games, for example, not only put Barcelona on the map as a hip destination, it demonstrated that Spain had fully emerged from the shadows of fascism to take its place in modern Europe.

What would the 2008 Games mean for Toronto? A lot. Maybe too much. "I think that's why the Olympics is so important to them," says urban planner Joe Berridge, referring to the city's establishment. There's a sense here, articulated by Mr. Berridge and others, that Toronto has somehow slipped, lost its edge. The Games, according to this school of thought, would usefully focus people's energies to do things that need doing anyway, including redeveloping the Lake Ontario waterfront, an issue here since 1911.

"You need to crack the whip," Mr. Siddiqui says. "Politicians need a deadline."

In the 1970s, Toronto was on the ascent. It was just 25 years ago this summer that the Canadian National Tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure, opened.

The city was seeing the fruition of a generation's worth of major building projects. It was on its way to displacing Montreal as Canada's largest city, as the language revolution in Quebec spurred the exodus of a quarter-million Anglophones, most of whom ended up in Toronto. Magazine headline writers in the US gushed over Toronto as "the next great North American city."

But that was then. This is now. What's happened? Not much, and that's the problem, says Berridge, whose Toronto firm, Urban Strategies, works all over the world. Toronto's waterfront remains underdeveloped, he notes.

With nothing much new to promote - "no refreshed cultural offering," as he puts it, just the same museums and other attractions that have been there for years - the tourism sector is in trouble, despite an exchange rate that should be enticing American visitors.

"The city has been in retreat at least through the 1990s," concurs William Thorsell, former editor of The Globe and Mail, and now chief executive at the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the crown jewels of Toronto.

The glory days of the 1970s were the work of the generation of the '60s, "the thin-lipped Presbyterians," he says, referring to a group it is today fashionable to dump on. "They held an international competition for a design for the new City Hall. TD [Toronto Dominion] Bank hired Mies van der Rohe to design their headquarters. The CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] hired I.M. Pei." He concludes: "But the baby boomers just lay back and enjoyed the fruits of their parents' work."

There was more to it than that, however - a serious recession through the first half of the '90s, followed by federal and provincial budget cuts that balanced the books at the expense of Toronto - despite the city's role as generator of that wealth.

Perhaps most important of all, economic integration with the US has in effect taken Toronto out of Canada and put it in the center of North America. Corporate acquisitions may turn Toronto into a branch-office location.

Canadians are used to thinking that they "do" cities better than Americans. "We never had that hollowing out of the core" that has plagued so many American cities, Mr. Crombie says of downtown Toronto.

But recently, Canadian newspapers have been filled with admiring coverage of comebacks and renovations in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. Their readers have been learning that the US federal government does indeed spend money on projects like Boston's Big Dig.

Meanwhile, Canada's provincial and federal governments have been backing away from involvement with their cities.

Part of Canadian cities' problem is that they are "still locked into constitutional arrangements that are at least 50 years out of date," says Toronto financier and philanthropist Alan Broadbent, who has been promoting a new "charter" for Canada's cities. He sees them as over-dependent on property taxes and unable to issue debt. His goal: "To get to the point of secure sources of revenue outside the property tax."

More broadly, Canada's big cities are eerily invisible in national politics, despite their enormous share of population. Under Canada's parliamentary system, the government has little need to engage in horse-trading or pork-barreling - and backbenchers have no opportunity to extract favors in exchange for their votes.

The kind of deficits that Mr. Broadbent, Thorsell, and other observers of Toronto describe are beginning to create concern within the larger public, Thorsell says - "even some anger." Hence the interest in winning the Olympics for Toronto: "It would be a way of unlocking investment" to lead to another flowering of the city, a worthy successor to the works of the "thin-lipped Presbyterians."

Already, he sees signs of a turnaround. His own institution is embarking on a major expansion and renovation; the Art Gallery of Ontario has begun a similar project to house 400 paintings from newspaper baron Ken Thomson.

Thorsell is counting on these and other projects to go ahead - Olympics or none. "We must not allow our fate to be determined by a vote in Moscow. We have to have a Plan B."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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