Referendum Fears and Misunderstandings Derailed Potential Toronto 2024 Olympic Bid: Report

Internal documents obtained by The Canadian Press through Canadian access-to-information laws reveal that Toronto 2024 Olympic bid planners viewed poor public opinion and a possible referendum as major stumbling blocks preventing a successful run at the Games.

“Support could wane following the Pan Am Games or given an unfavourable media climate,” a document from late July suggested.

“A number of advocacy groups, activists and politicians will organize against the Olympic bid.”

Toronto's City Hall during the 2015 Pan Am Games
Toronto’s City Hall during the 2015 Pan Am Games

Officials feared that a referendum would give the groups a platform to “overstate” their opposition to the bid.

Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Games faced severe opposition from the advocacy group “Bread Not Circuses” who were largely credited with knocking the city out of the running.  Toronto placed third out of six cities, behind Atlanta and Athens.  The Ontario capital later came second to Beijing it its quest to host the 2008 edition of the Games.

The internal documents further speculate that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires public support to be in the 80 to 85 per cent range, and the 61 per cent support shown in a January poll would be problematic moving forward.  But officials were ill-advised on this point as winning bids often poll below that range including Tokyo, Rio and London.  Vancouver won its 2010 Olympic Games bid when the city received 64 per cent of the votes in a mid-campaign plebiscite.

Toronto Mayor John Tory
Toronto Mayor John Tory

Tokyo entered the 2020 Olympic bid with support polling no more than 50 per cent yet by the end of a successful campaign those numbers rose to 77 per cent.

In less than two weeks voters in Germany will cast votes in a referendum to determine Hamburg’s candidacy in the 2024 race.  If voters turn against the proposal on November 29th, four cities including Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome will remain.

Toronto Mayor John Tory waited until the IOC application deadline of September 15 to finally reject the bid explaining that after hours of discussions with the IOC there just wasn’t enough time to effectively move forward.  But along with public support fears, he had been advised that the then upcoming federal election may pose another obstacle.

“A federal political party may campaign on the promise of scuttling an Olympic bid,” the report explained.

Interestingly, The Canadian Press reported that after the discussions with the IOC as part of the organization’s new invitation stage, bid promoters were able to calculate lower cost estimates based on the IOC Agenda 2020 reforms that allow for more venue use options.  But advisers feared that opponents would continue to leverage previously reported higher estimates.

As the bid decision loomed, vocal opposition with social-media savvy emerged including the loosely organized NoTO2024 group that mimicked the strategies of No Boston Olympics.  The latter successfully cast enough doubt about a Boston 2024 Olympic bid during the previous months that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) eventually parted ways with the Massachusetts group and moved forward with Los Angeles instead.

But the Toronto opposition often relied on erroneous and unsupported outdated “facts”, and in some cases inflammatory Website comments that bordered on libel, to try to get their opinions heard.  Their lack of knowledge of the new bid process, or even the benefits of the old process made the Olympic discussion dysfunctional.


“Myth 7: The IOC is reformed
Nope – it’s still the same old cabal of unelected and often corrupt failed politicians, super-wealthy princes and the odd despot. They still demand five-star service, right from fruit in their hotel suites to private lanes on the highway. Millions of our tax dollars are poised to go directly (or rather, extremely indirectly) into their pockets.”

In fact both sides of the debate missed one significant “secret” that is embedded in the bid process:  the IOC will contribute USD $1.7 billion to the winning city to organize the 2024 Games.

IOC President Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms have changed the bid process, at least on paper for now.  But Bach said last year that the IOC needs to communicate better in order to distance itself from the rhetoric of the past.  Though improvements have been made, there is still a distance to go.

It seems the citizens of Toronto and Canada were cheated out of a fair Olympics debate.  It’s up to the IOC to continue to work on improving its messaging and the Olympic brand so that more informed discussions can happen in the future.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.

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