The track is gone but Toronto wins Pan Am’s Venue game

It’s been years, but high-performance director of Swimming Canada, John Atkinson, vividly remembers donning a helmet and boots to tour the aquatic center being built for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

“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 Scarborough University of Toronto campus.

“You knew it was going to be the catalyst for something special for the sport and for the whole community.”

That’s what governments are promising to justify investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new venues for major events. Legacy – inspiring youth, nurturing elite athletes, attracting future events and bequeathing much-needed infrastructure to the community – is always a key selling point.

It’s one that doesn’t always live up to the bill, but the sports center has delivered on all fronts. Atkinson credits the Pan Am Games and its dedicated facility – home to Swimming Canada’s premier high-performance training center for Olympians and junior players – for nothing less than the “resurgence” of the sport.

Canadian swimmers won three medals together at the two Olympic Games in front of Pan Am’s home stadium; in the next two, in Rio and Tokyo, they won 12.

“Without this facility, we wouldn’t have come close to the performance and results that we would have achieved,” said Atkinson.

Canada has been dominant in the Olympic pool since the Pan Am Sports Center in Scarborough, built for the 2015 Games, became the sport's high-performance training center.

Kris Westwood, High Performance Director of Cycling Canada, says the same thing about the Milton cycling velodrome: “Without the velodrome we would not have had Olympic or Paralympic medals in Tokyo; it’s pretty easy.”

“We always knew it was going to be a transformation, which is why we worked so hard to ensure we got a permanent facility that could be home to a large part of our high-performance programs,” he said of Mattamy National Cycling Center.

But not every venue has been a success for the sport it was built for.

Mathieu Gentès, now chief executive officer of Athletics Canada, also recalls the thrill of seeing an athletics stadium at York University built to international standards.

“There was a lot of excitement about the legacy and the world-class facility that we would have access to,” he said.

Athletics Canada had hoped to expand its high-performance training facility, housed in the cramped Toronto Track and Field Center across the street, to support current and future Olympic athletes. It also looked forward to holding national and international meetings to capitalize on the GTA market.

None of that happened.

The track where sprint star Andre De Grasse celebrated his coming-out party and won two gold medals in front of a Canadian crowd is gone.

Last December, York University completed a major renovation. It removed the running track and expanded the infield with new artificial turf that meets professional football and rugby standards. Added a winter dome to make it work all year round – just not for the sport it was originally built for.

“Things have changed quickly in terms of access to this stadium,” said Gentès. “An Athletics Canada high-performance center in York was clearly not a priority for them.”

The university owns the facility and says it is proud to welcome athletes to the Pan Ams, but “once its original purpose was fulfilled, York began planning beyond its application as a single-use facility,” spokesman Yanni Dagonas said in one Explanation.

York Lions Stadium, as it is now known, is now “a year-round activity destination” for students, and the revamp has enabled partnerships with footballers Toronto FC II and York United FC, and rugbyers Toronto Arrows, Dagonas said.

But it also left Toronto without a place to properly host Ontario’s high school track and field championships next week, let alone vie for the high-profile events being touted at the time of the federal government’s investment. (In general, Ottawa covered 56 percent of the cost of Pan Am capital projects, and the owners 44 percent.)

Two weeks ago, the Milton Velodrome welcomed the world’s best track cyclists on the Nations Cup route. There will be another stop next year, a qualifier for the Paris 2024 Olympics. And this fall, international swimming returns to Toronto with the first FINA World Cup meeting in Canada in more than 20 years.

When it comes to high-performance sports, a plan for the future is as important as the facility — and the commitment to make it work, says Swimming Canada. This was particularly important as the Scarborough center allowed top athletes to train safely and in compliance with all protocols during the pandemic.

“How they kept this facility running gave everyone who went to Tokyo last year an opportunity to perform well,” Atkinson said.

With this in mind, the Center’s Executive Director, Bob Singleton, and Director of Sport and Recreation, Rafael Torre, will receive Swimming Canada’s President’s Commendation for their profound impact on the sport.

“Our partnership with Swimming Canada is very strong,” Singleton said, adding that the facility, which is co-owned by U of T and the city, also works well for the community.

More than half of the bookable time is reserved for community use (city programs and other clubs), 30 percent for competitive sports and 17 percent for the university. The millions of dollars the center receives annually from the TO2015 Legacy Fund help make it affordable.

The fund was set up by the federal and state governments to offset the costs of the sports center, velodrome and stadium for 20 years. (York stopped receiving funding when the stadium’s redevelopment began.) It was intended to avoid the white elephants of the past, venues that proved unaffordable after games and fell into disrepair.

Milton’s recreation manager, Christina Frizzell, says the funding and good planning have resulted in 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, everyone involved had a really great vision… to really think about how we could have this high-performance facility that’s also really supportive of the community,” Fritzell said.

For athletics, Pan Am’s legacy has largely been “ambitious.”

“Our team did very well…a lot of kids took inspiration from that,” Gentès said. “From a long-term facilities perspective, we certainly didn’t do where some of the other sports did.”


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