Trophy or atrophy?

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

The impact of Toronto's sports facility shortage was on embarrassing display as the medal results from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, filtered in last week.

Out of 81 Canadians who took home medals, only seven were born and still reside in Toronto. And you can count on the gymnasts for the bulk of that: Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, with four medals, Brittnee Habbib, with one, Alyssa Brown, with two, all in artistic gymnastics, as well as Carly Orava, with one, and Alexandra Orlando, with six, in the rhythmic gymnastics category. Most elite athletes need to go elsewhere in the country to advance their careers.

That's no surprise if you're acquainted with the great Toronto sport facility shortfall, or the decrepit state of many of the few that are standing. It's no surprise if you're a swimming enthusiast lined up for six hours at the Etobicoke Olympium pool, one of just two 50-metre pools in the GTA, looking to sign up your kid or yourself for one of their programs, cursing parks and recreation or their city hall overlords or the province or whomever for a facility situation that doesn't service demand.

The elite athletes who are still here are pushing out the community grassroots beginners, the house leaguers just looking to play.

"We need a federal, provincial and municipal program with a focus," Jim Bradley, CEO of the Sport Alliance of Ontario, said.

The next chapter in all of this is a Toronto Sports Council action plan to be released at the end of April in the hopes of galvanizing stakeholders -- sports groups, universities, school boards and representatives from the city and the province -- after the Toronto Sports Summit was held in January.

There will be some innovative ideas there, including a plan to invest in field turf at sites around the community, allowing for longer use of those fields. The real problem in a situation rife with them is the reality east of Yonge St., where there are no bigger facilities, and you have an expanding population. Lots of housing developments and malls, but no place for kids to play.

Ideas and talk, but then what? Outside of sudden provincial or federal government largesse, there isn't enough money to go around to cover off everything that needs to get done -- four multi-pad arenas would only start to deal with the ice issue, the chair of the sports council, Karen Pitre, says.

So the most likely solution is to bob and weave -- upgrade an existing facility, instead of building a new one, for example. Pitre says getting those stakeholders to row in the same direction is a headache all in its own. Most operate in "silos," as she puts it. Nobody wants to share what they have, including money in their capital budgets that will get new facilities built, once well-considered objectives for the entire community have been set, and resources are pooled.

Breaking those silos and changing mind-sets is exactly what is needed, including finding new revenue models that open doors to the private sector. "Philanthropic business development," has worked in the cultural community, Pitre says. Why has the sports community been unable to organize itself, make a concerted pitch to private donors, and see any of those dollars?

"If somebody (with money to give) went to the city, the spin cycle they'd get into, they'd say you know what? Forget it," she said.

It's not as if nothing is happening, as city hall politicians, including Toronto's mayor, will say.

There are a number of local infrastructure upgrades in the pipeline. The track at Birchmount Stadium is being improved. There's a soccer stadium on the way. Steve Goodwin, executive director of Etobicoke Swimming, looking out at the Olympium pool, talked about recent city-funded upgrades, like the construction of new pool bulkheads and new tiling.

Goodwin is sitting on the fence, waiting for any action to come out of a city plan to upgrade and build new pools. If nothing happens there, he says he has investors willing to build another 50-metre pool and diving facility at $20 million next to the Olympium if a deal can be worked out with the city to use the land.

Goodwin's issue isn't the quality of the 30-year-old Olympium facility (there was a leak, but that was repaired quickly), it's the quantity of world-class pools around the city. A new facility also would fill up immediately, he adds. Yes, the city stepped up with a few million in upgrades, but it was money from the club that had to pay for new six-inch lane ropes and a $20,000 scoreboard, raised through swim meets and "tag days."

Pitre bemoans how sport always is looked upon as a luxury item when it comes to politicians and budgeting, and how we need to break through that, get all stakeholders to focus on what she calls the sports connections -- health, employment, youth development, leadership.

Melbourne had its Commonwealth Games. There are no Olympics or Commonwealth Games on our horizon to act as an impetus to pump government money in here to get things done.

Do we even care? Is Toronto just a pro sports hub, where it's all about getting on ESPN, and let's leave amateur sports to places like Calgary and Vancouver? Pitre says the sheer number of people enrolled in sports programs and clubs now, with legions more looking to get in, shows we do care.

We all know we have a facility shortage. Running off alarming studies about issues like child obesity and the need for healthy, active living is the easy part. Soon the hard part begins.


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