A photo of an anti-Olympic Games banner.
An anti-Olympic Games banner. Credit: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj Credit: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj

Toronto is hungry. I know you could say the same for your community.

Hungry literally, but also hungry for a reprieve from the pandemic.

It’s easy to be excited about distractions.

Toronto and Vancouver have both won successful bids to be host cities for the FIFA 2026 men’s World Cup. Soccer fans, the two bid city mayors, a few premiers, and I suspect a good number of corporations are celebrating.

But mega-events like the Olympics, world’s fairs, even visits by the Pope all come with predictable dangers.

In 1988 Bread Not Circuses, a coalition of union leaders, human-rights lawyers, and activists tackled those dangers head on, opposing Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. They were successful. Toronto did not win the bid.

Bread Not Circuses took its name from the phrase bread and circuses which is attributed to Roman satirical poet Juvenal (c. 100 CE). He was referencing the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games such as sports and fairs as a means for politicians to gain power.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a key member of Bread not Circuses and author of The Olympic Games (2020) and six other books on the Olympic industry has researched the harmful impacts on host cities. Key among those is exorbitant over budget costs to the host city, human rights violations, and intensified policing measures.

Social services and housing a greater need

In the early 2000s I supported Bread Not Circuses which was then challenging Toronto’s bid for the 2008 summer Olympics. As a street nurse I was concerned that Toronto’s infrastructure and social supports were decaying, and all three levels of government were stepping back from funding social housing. Homelessness was worsening and had recently been declared a national disaster by the Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. At the time I was working with the Tent City homeless community on the waterfront, a site that was proposed to be the Athlete’s Village should Toronto win the bid. Both Bread Not Circuses and homeless activists did not feel there were reliable assurances from the City that social benefits such as housing would result from the bid.

In 2001 following a meeting with members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Jon Alexander, a Bread Not Circuses spokesperson, stated: “Housing is an important issue that hasn’t been addressed by the Toronto bid. We’re concerned about the Portlands. Besides the fact that there are people living here, we’re also concerned about the fast tracking of environmental assessments.”

Tent City residents joined Bread Not Circuses members to anxiously watch the IOC decision on a television hooked up to a generator near their waterfront encampment. Toronto also lost this bid.

Although Tent City residents were later evicted, due to strong activism they won rent supplements for housing. Today, a dome tent-like shelter sits on the land, symbolic of the City’s chronic inability to ensure adequate shelter, let alone housing for thousands. Pre-COVID the dome sheltered 100 people on cots in one large common space. Today, the surrounding Portlands are undergoing massive changes including flood protection measures, moving the mouth of the Don River, creating wetlands, an urban island, and a new community.

When Bread Not Circuses fought its first Olympic fight there were 1,500 emergency shelter beds in (then) Metro (Toronto). Today, 40 years later, there are 9,000 people in various forms of shelter and hundreds without shelter. The extent of housing need, of impoverishment, hunger, desperation in the city is unprecedented. Communities across the country are unable to meet basic needs, as demonstrated by Ottawa’s Mobile Mission Meals and The Out of the Cold Meal Program at Saint Luke’s United Church in Toronto, the latter serving 600 meals a week with demand steadily increasing.

I like sports, mostly baseball, but Toronto is once again entering the world of sports circuses and the phrase “bread not circuses” is unfortunately still relevant.

Footing the bill for FIFA

Toronto’s costs for FIFA hosting are already rising. As the City Manager’s report to Toronto’s Executive Committee on July 12 states:

“Overall, the operations and capital costs to be incurred locally in Toronto have been projected to be approximately $300.0 million by 2026, including a 10 per cent contingency.  This reflects a 3.4 per cent increase in the projected cost as presented to City Council in April 2022, due to the recent escalation in inflation rates.”

“Notably, detailed financial commitments to the costs of hosting the World Cup in Toronto have not yet been secured from the federal and provincial governments.”

While there will undoubtedly be positive outcomes from FIFA 2026 (youth soccer funding, new or enhanced sports facilities, economic boost from tourism) the negatives must not be ignored and Helen Jefferson Lenskyj reminds us why we should pay attention to the dangers:

“Like the Olympics and other sport mega-events, World Cups are infamous for exploiting workers, violating human rights, criminalizing poverty, and damaging the environment, while corporate sponsors, media rights-holders and developers rake in the profits,” she says. 

To contemplate a sport mega-event while not addressing spending for the social good of all is corrupt. It’s even worse knowing that Toronto has some major pre-existing issues with its priorities and financial allocations.

Chronic municipal misspending

I asked my Twitter followers their thoughts on city misspending, I got an earful.

The biggest complaint by far was the police budget as Toronto spends 25 per cent of taxpayer dollars on policing.

Policing was followed closely by the city’s militarized approach to homelessness which included spending $2 million for three encampment evictions in 2021, and surreptitiously approving another $1 million at its June 2022 council meeting for private security to monitor homeless people in parks, or as a colleague aptly rephrased “to function as human webcams”.

Many responses pointed to how spending on cars dominates – from the spring pothole repairs, to the never-ending Gardiner Expressway rebuild (which several people coined as the John Tory Expressway).

While there has been progress on bike lane expansion, riders expressed frustrations with the chaos of wasted dollars on bike lane construction and deconstruction in various locations.

People had a remarkable memory and provided me with a long list of city work that is contracted out with poor results: maintenance of public garbage receptacles, tree maintenance, snow removal to name a few.

Last month, I wrote about the latest contract scandal which included a $13.2 million over payment for items in the city’s contracts with hotels for shelter.

So, as we prepare for the soccer circus to come to town let’s insist on the items that we want to see in our ‘breadbasket’: parks for everyone (stop the policing), turn on the taps and open the washrooms, fund a massive winterizing washroom project in parks, open and fund cooling/warming centre hubs across the city, enhance funding for drop-ins and food programs, build social housing and fast-track 9,000 people from shelters to housing.

You can add to the list!

“Dance in the dust in the frenzy of the desperately in need
Led by the voices of the men who invoke ritual to hide their greed.”
-lyrics from Bread and Circuses Billy Bragg

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse (non-practising), author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues. Her work has included taking the pulse of health issues affecting...