The Case for Another Olympiad

It’s been nearly forty years…

I remember watching a conversation recently, featuring the late great Christopher Hitchens and, if I’m not mistaken, Salman Rushdie and Mod-Def. I know, I know, once in a while television redeems itself, though admittedly I watched it for free online and it was Bill Maher after all. In any event, Hitchens said something that caught my attention. He was asking why it is that some people seem unable to distinguish between the ways things are and the way things ought to be. Another member of the panel was attacking Hitchens for what was nothing more than a description of a societal ill. He was not advocating for it, and this was clear to me. That said, I’ve noticed this too. It’s a semi-effective debating technique because it invariably requires the opponent to back up and clarify, which then may either lead to an opening or provide a crucial time to think of his next move. At the very least it can prevent someone from making a quick point in this era of political debate as sound-bytes.

I’ve encountered this argument made time and again when referring to any possibility of holding another Olympiad here in Montréal. Invariably I will be shouted down by those who exclaim, as if I didn’t already know, that Montréal had once upon a time held an Olympiad and that the public generally considers it a disaster given the cost over-runs, the constant problems with the retractable roof and that we can’t seem to find a permanent use for the facilities.

That’s the way things are, but it doesn’t mean we as a people can’t or should not get involved with another Olympiad. We can rather simply choose not to do what we know didn’t work in the past; it’s largely what the organizers of Los Angeles 84 did, and they wound up with the most profitable games of all time. There was a method to their madness which can be repeated.

I’ve also come across the arguments that the games are elitist, exclusionary, overly corporate in nature and serve merely to make rich people feel better about themselves. I disagree. I feel strongly that the games can be a conduit for good in this world – the competition in sport is a better use of a nation’s talents than the development of ever greater weapons to kill one another. It’s more effective at brining people together and focusing their attention on having fun, developing healthy minds and bodies and reminding us of the power of a peaceful world than pretty much any other large international event or organization I can think of.

But of course Olympiads need to be clearly articulated, and should never be used to make some rich off the backs of the many. Among the many early criticisms of the London 2012 Summer Games are the horrendous living quarters provided to imported workers, not to mention over-the-top security and draconian branding and sponsorship protection measures. Suffice it to say, I can imagine many will be studying what London did wrong.

But again, this is not enough of a reason to abandon the project altogether. It should only serve as a reminder that we can and should do better.

There’s no question in my mind the best possible future use for the Big O is as the primary venue for another Summer Olympiad, and as such we should commit to organizing a committee to make regular proposals to the IOC until we get them back. This means a proposal ready to go for every possible future date, even the Winter Olympiads, though I’d prefer a Summer Games simply because they’re much larger and involve many more competing nations. That and our summers are to die for, and we should remind the peoples of the world we don’t live in igloos.

So what’s the case for another games? How can we sell this?

For one, on cost – another Montréal games won’t nearly cost as much as the first one, nor other recent examples, because most of what we need has already been built. Ergo, instead of building anew and tearing down old stuff, we’ll mostly be renovating and rehabilitating existing structures, such as the Olympic Stadium. The facilities we already have access to is rather comprehensive: CEPSUM, the Bell Centre, the Claude Robillard Centre, Montréal Aquatic Centre, Jarry Park & Uniprix Stadium, Saputo Stadium, Molson Stadium, the Olympic Pool, the Olympic Rowing Basin (get the idea). We’d need to build a Velodrome, Equestrian Park and will likely have to convert other existing facilities to handle the qualifying rounds, but I still think we’ve got most of what’s already required.

I wonder whether it’s completely necessary to build a new Olympic Village when we might just as simply purchase the use of a hotel (or several hotels) to serve the same purposes. That or we could develop a new building to serve later as a student dormitory or as a run of the mill condo tower. The point is that we need to be sure such a building is a) designed for Montréal, and not Marseille’s climate and b) has a clear post-games purpose. Such was not the case for our existing Olympic Village. But I digress.

For two, on accessibility and sustainability – all the facilities I’ve just mentioned are already, for the most part, very well connected to our city’s existing public transit infrastructure. This could be the Métro Olympics, and why not? It will be far easier for more locals to visit the games without using their cars than it was back in 1976, and we have a far more developed system than we had back then. Moreover, we won’t have to expropriate much land nor demolish many, if any, buildings, as long as we mandate that all new construction goes up on otherwise underused space, such as our ample parking lots. By setting our own high standards for environmental and economic sustainability, we could have the greenest games ever, and showcase the standards and technologies used to make that a reality. Also, given that the Olympic Park site and all these other facilities are all connected to the Métro and by extension Underground City, well what can I say – the whole city would become part of the Olympic site.

For three, on airports – we have two international airports, one of which is currently barely being used. If we were to reactivate Mirabel for another Olympiad, we would be wise to finish highway 13 and to finally connect Mirabel to the city by means of an express train. This would be comparatively costly, but would secure Mirabel as viable future alternative to Dorval for future development. Doing so would further allow us to prevent massive congestion on island.

For four, on accommodation – our city is better prepared to handle large numbers of tourists today than it was back in 1976. We have many more hotels, we have more convention space and a significant local tourism and hospitality industry which could use the business boost.

In any event, these are but a few reasons why City Hall should maintain an on-going open file on another Olympiad and commit the requisite resources to make this a reality. Unfortunately, I’m certain at least some enthusiasm for another Games would be weighed by the knowledge so many would be seeking to profit individually and opportunistically at the expense of the greater good. If we could just try really hard not to screw each other over, we may have a very profitable, low-overhead Olympiad, and share a possibly great wealth, not to mention sustained international attention all the while providing ample reasons to continue investing in our city and it’s endless potential.

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