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Why the Pan Am Games are good for Toronto

The Pan American Games are coming to Toronto in 2 years – 559 days to be exact. While not as high profile as the Olympics, some of you may be surprised to learn that the Pan Am Games will involve three times as many athletes as the Vancouver Olympics did.

However, the big question with these sorts of events is always whether or not they create a lasting economic boon for the host city. History is littered with examples of economic disasters and lingering Olympic debts. I’d love to see a full analysis of what it costs to bid for a game, how much public money has to go up, how much private investment it spurs, and so on.

At the same time, I suspect that some of the positive externalities might be hard to measure. How do you attach a value to the brand equity you get from hosting a major international sporting event? It’s hard, but for many people around the world the 2015 Pan Am Games could be the event that embeds Toronto into their psyche. 

But there is another big benefit to playing host. It creates a real deadline. When cities bid for games they make all sorts of promises about the kinds of things they’re going to build and provide. In the case of Toronto, it accelerated the creation of a new mixed-income neighbourhood called the West Don Lands (which will be used to house the athletes during the games).

“Originally, build out of the 32 hectare (80 acres) West Don Lands was planned to unfold in three strategic phases and take between 10 and 12 years, subject to market conditions. With the Pan Am Games, more than half of the community will be in place for the Games in 2015.” -Waterfront Toronto

So in effect, we’ve leveraged the games in order to expedite capital projects that were already in the pipeline. I like this, because without a hard and fast deadline, I can almost assure you that these publicly run projects would have fallen behind schedule. Deadlines and goals are good.

Here’s an example why:

When I first started my MBA program at Rotman, we did an interesting organizational behaviour exercise involving origami cranes. The class was split into groups and each group was asked to go away and build paper cranes. If you’ve ever built one of these, you’ll know that they can be tough at first.

But what each group wasn’t aware of was that they were all given different instructions in terms of the number of cranes they were expected to build. Their goals were different. At the end of the exercise, all of the cranes were counted and each group wrote their “production” levels on the board.

What was discovered was that each group more or less built the exact number of cranes that they were asked to build. This is interesting, because presumably every group had the raw ability to produce the same number of paper cranes. All that changed was the motivation.

Returning to the case of the Pan Am Games, the mandate is clear: We need to house 10,000 athletes and officials by the summer of 2015, or else we’ll look utterly incapable in front of the world. We have a deadline. And that’s a good thing.

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