Here We Go Again

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: mega-events do little to stimulate growth, strain already-burdened budgets, and in the end rarely deliver on their promises of urban rejuvenation. Back in mid-2015 I was paranoid that Toronto — coming off a post-coital glow from the Pan Am Games — would foolishly lurch into the Summer Olympics fray (Building, August-September 2015). Thankfully my dire predictions about that did not come to pass, and in fact Toronto side-stepped another mega-event siren song when council extinguished pursuing a World Expo bid last November. However, elsewhere in Canada it appears the promise of worldwide fame and fortune that mega-events purport to lavish on host cities is beguiling potential supporters. Not only is Calgary currently exploring whether to officially bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics (because it seems like the act of bidding alone will practically guarantee a win), but it also appears that gears are in motion for Canada to throw its hat into the ring of a joint bid for the 2026 World Cup, along with the United States and Mexico (notice anything special about those dates?).

It should be fairly obvious that I am not a big fan of the “mega-event syndrome” and its various permutations. I’ve warned before about the dangers of being seduced by shiny new pro sports facilities (Building, February-March 2013), and the scale of potential damage caused by a mega-event — overpromising of benefits, underestimating costs, and using public resources for private interest — is even worse. There is plenty of economic literature warning that publicly financed mega-events like World Cup do not create positive net economic benefits for the community, and in fact are more prone to creating results like oversized or obsolete infrastructure and facilities that the public is forced to pay for (please observe a moment of silence for poor Brazil).

At the same time, I have to admit that there’s something to be said about the experience of witnessing (or being one of) thousands of fans streaming out of a venue and through downtown streets: a potent reminder that the collective sharing of a mega-event can be a powerful tool in building a city’s identity. But mistakes tend to happen when planners and city boosters try to harness that emotional connection as an engine of urban redevelopment.

There are examples out there of “good” mega-events (they tend to be World Expos) that left a lasting legacy of positive socio-economic benefits to a city or region as a whole, but as Rhys Phillips points out in this issue’s cover story it tends to come down to strong governmental leadership that made use of unbiased economic analysis and well-designed financing and governance structures to minimize the economic and financial costs. The type of literature I mentioned above urge new policy directions for potential host cities, such as no longer linking mega-events to large-scale urban development; earmark and cap public sector contributions; and bargain hard with event-governing bodies for better conditions.

Canadian governments are not immune to pressures, public-opinion or otherwise, that push for us to be recognized on an international stage. But if we are to reap the maximum benefits at the lowest cost possible, governments need to do their homework— carefully and without prejudice assess the long-term economic and social dimensions—before making commitments, because these events leave a mark for a long time.

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