GUADALAJARA - Sitting inside a VIP tent on the grounds of the Telmex Athletics Stadium, Bob O’Doherty didn’t use these exact words, but the message was clear.
The senior vice-president of Sport & Venues for TO2015 said the way to make the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games a success is to drag PASO — the organization that runs the Pan Am Games — into the 21st century. To make the Games more professional, even pay some of the athletes if necessary, so sports fans in Toronto, southern Ontario and Canada will support an event that has, quite frankly, not generated a very positive buzz.
Indeed, there’s a perception four years out that the Toronto Games may well be a disaster because Toronto is a “pro” sports town and nobody cares about amateur sporting events.
But O’Doherty and his TO2015 colleagues are determined to change the way the Pan Am Games are run.
He firmly believes they can change the games enough so that the most popular amateur athletes in the Americas — the Usain Bolts, the Michael Phelps — will want to compete in Toronto; make that, will have to compete in Toronto.
O’Doherty applauded Guadalajara 2011 organizers for putting on a successful games here so far. Most of the events have been well-attended and there is a real buzz in the warm, clear air.
But he acknowledged that the Pan Ams will be a much harder sell four years hence in Toronto because they don’t expect sports fans in the GTA to flock to the venues and events out of civic pride, which seems to be the deal here in Mexico’s second-largest city.
“We have to attack it in a different way,” said O’Doherty.
One crucial way of attacking the problem of potential fan indifference in Toronto, O’Doherty said, is to convince the individual sports federations to make the 2015 Pan Am Games a direct qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics, which is easier said than done. Presently, the Pan Ams are an Olympic qualifier only for some sports, but not the most important sports, like track and field, swimming and basketball.
That’s the big flaw of Pan Am Games and that’s what could sink the Toronto games if changes aren’t made.
O’Doherty is aware of that. He is also aware of the fact that big amateur sports federations, such as the IAAF, the international federation for track and field, host their own world championships the same year as Pan Ams. And the difference between the IAAF worlds and the Pan Ams is the world championships pay big money to athletes. The Pan Ams don’t. So, if you’re a top track athlete, which competition are you going to attend?
O’Doherty admitted that, yes, Toronto organizers may somehow have to convince PASO to allow them to offer either appearance fees or prize money to some of the top athletes. It’s a radical idea.
“(Athletes) have to make a living,” O’Doherty acknowledged. “If that means that we have to explore that option for some high profile athletes, then we might have to go down that road.”
Perhaps the biggest key of all to insure the Toronto Pan Ams become a success will be to convince FIBA — the international basketball federation — to agree to make the 2015 Pan Ams the qualifier for the 2016 Olympics.
FIBA currently runs their own Olympic qualifiers and they make big money from it. It seems highly unlikely that TO2015 can convince a major international sports federation like FIBA to give up a cash cow like their FIBA Americas Championship.
Maybe it’s blind wishful-thinking, but O’Doherty actually believes this can be done.
“FIBA haven’t said no yet and I consider that to be very positive, because FIBA’s very good at saying no very quickly,” O’Doherty said, with a laugh.
To an outsider, the only way TO2015 would be able to convince FIBA to allow the 2015 Pan Ams to become the 2016 Olympic qualifier would be for huge bucks to change hands, that is for TO2015 to pay FIBA off. That would take a lot of money and the approval of PASO, and possibly the assistance of a Canadian TV partner.
The basketball event at the 2015 Games may ultimately be what sinks or saves the Toronto Games. The FIBA Americans Championship event often draws NBA stars, and Toronto fans would flock to Pan Am Games basketball if the best NBAers from the Americas took part, particularly the star American NBAers and the Canadian NBAers.
As it is now, the basketball, baseball, track and field and swimming events at the Pan Ams feature B and C level international athletes.
That may cut it down here in Guadalajara, but it certainly won’t in Toronto in four years time.