It’s been years, but Swimming Canada’s director of high performance, John Atkinson, vividly remembers donning a helmet and boots to tour the aquatic center being built for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.
“It was halfway to completion and even then there was excitement about building this phenomenal facility, and what it could be, not just for the Games, but for the future,” he said of the Pan Am Sports Center, in the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto.
“You knew it was going to be the catalyst for something special for the sport and for the whole community.”
That is the promise governments make to justify investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new venues for major events. Legacy – inspiring youth, empowering elite athletes, attracting future events, and leaving the community with much-needed infrastructure – is always a key selling point.
It’s one that doesn’t always live up to the billing, but the sports center has delivered on all fronts. Atkinson credits the Pan American Games and the facilities built for them, which are home to Swimming Canada’s premier high-performance training center for Olympians and beginners, with nothing less than the “revival” of the sport.
In the two Olympic Games before the home Pan American Games, Canadian swimmers won a combined three medals; in the next two, in Rio and Tokyo, he won 12.
“We wouldn’t have anything like the performances and results that we’ve had if it hadn’t been for that facility,” Atkinson said.
Kris Westwood, director of high performance for Cycling Canada, says the same about the cycling velodrome in Milton: “We wouldn’t have had Olympic medals in Tokyo or Paralympics without the velodrome; it’s pretty simple.”
“We always knew it was going to be transformative, which is why we went to such lengths to make sure we had a permanent facility that could be home to a large portion of our high-performing programs,” he said of Mattamy. National Cycling Center.
But not all venues have been successful for the sport they were built for.
Mathieu Gentès, now CEO of Athletics Canada, also recalls the thrill of seeing a stadium built to international standards for athletics at York University.
“There was a lot of excitement around the legacy piece and the first-class facility that we would have access to,” he said.
Athletics Canada hoped to expand its high-performance training center, located in the crowded Toronto Athletics Center across the street, to support current and future Olympians. It also hoped to hold national and international meetups to capitalize on the GTA market.
None of that happened.
The track where sprint star Andre De Grasse had his coming out party, winning two gold medals in front of a Canadian crowd, is gone.
Last December, York University completed a major renovation. The running track was removed and the infield was expanded with a new artificial turf that meets professional football and rugby standards. A winter dome was added to make it work all year round, but not for the sport it was originally built for.
“Things changed quickly in terms of us having access to that stadium,” Gentès said. “Clearly, an Athletics Canada high-performance center in York was not a priority for them.”
The university owns the facility and says it was proud to welcome athletes to the Pan American Games, but “once its original purpose was fulfilled, York began planning beyond its application as a single facility. use,” spokesman Yanni Dagonas said in a statement.
York Lions Stadium, as it is now called, is now “a season-long activity destination” for students, and the conversion enabled partnerships with Toronto FC II and York United FC soccer teams, and Toronto Arrows rugby union Dagonas said.
But it has also left Toronto without a venue to properly host next week’s Ontario high school athletics championships, let alone compete for the high-profile events touted at the time of the federal government’s investment. (Overall, Ottawa covered 56 percent of the cost of Pan Am’s capital projects, the owners 44 percent.)
Two weeks ago, the Milton Velodrome welcomed the world’s best track cyclists to the Nations Cup circuit. It will host another stop next year, a qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics. And this fall, international swimming returns to Toronto with the first FINA World Cup meet in Canada in more than 20 years.
When it comes to high-performance sports, what matters as much as the facilities is a plan for its future and a commitment to making it work, Swimming Canada says. That was particularly important when the Scarborough center made it possible for elite athletes to train safely during the pandemic, following all protocols.
“The way they maintained that facility gave everyone who went to Tokyo last year a chance to do it right,” Atkinson said.
In light of that, the center’s managing director, Bob Singleton, and sports and recreation director, Rafael Torre, will receive the Swimming Canada President’s Award for having a profound impact on the sport.
“Our partnership with Swimming Canada is very strong,” Singleton said, adding that the facility, jointly owned by U of T and the city, also works well for the community.
More than half of the time available for booking is set aside for community use (city programs and other clubs), 30 percent for high-performance sports, and 17 percent for college. The millions of dollars the center receives annually from the TO2015 Legacy Fund help keep it affordable.
The fund was created by the federal and provincial governments to offset costs for 20 years at the sports center, velodrome and stadium. (York stopped receiving funding when the stadium conversion began.) It was designed to avoid the white elephants of the past, places that proved unaffordable after the Games and fell into disrepair.
Milton recreation manager Christina Frizzell says the funding and good planning have left a positive legacy for the velodrome, which is also part of the recreation center.
“We’re very fortunate that when the facility was proposed and built, there was great vision from everyone involved…really thinking of a way that we could have this high-performance facility that also really supports the community.” Frizzell said.
For athletics, Pan Am’s legacy was primarily “aspirational”.
“Our team did very well… a lot of kids were inspired by that,” Gentès said. “From a long-term facilities perspective, we certainly didn’t get what some of the other sports did.”
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