4 min

Why the LGBT community should support a Toronto Olympic bid

Olympic Games would be an opportunity for Canada to promote LGBT rights globally

Back in late 2013, Toronto’s activist LGBT community banded together to protest against the Olympics being held in Russia, a country whose human rights record is generally awful and which had recently begun a crackdown on LGBT people in particular.

“How dare the International Olympic Committee (IOC) give the Olympics to such an awful country?” activists cried. “Why aren’t the sponsors speaking up against the atrocities in Russia?” they asked.  

To be fair, the campaign sparked discussions and caught enough momentum that legislatures and city halls across Canada – mirroring efforts around the western world – raised Pride flags in solidarity with Russia’s LGBT people during the Games (Russia’s Muslims were SOL, however).

So it’s a bizarre spectacle to see many of these same forces line up to begin efforts to shut down a potential Toronto bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. After all, if it’s terrible for the Olympics to be hosted in an anti-gay country, shouldn’t we leap at the opportunity for a progressive, liberal city like Toronto to host the games, to show them how it’s done?

Apparently not. Apparently, we should be thinking small — ashamed of every little wart and mole on our city’s complexion before we dare invite in the world. We must spend only on bread, not circuses, and never mind that many of us in the LGBT community earn our bread from circuses and that we argue vociferously for their continued public support. Never mind that every time a major LGBT athlete comes out, we celebrate them; we shouldn’t support the events that made them role models in the first place.

But a Toronto Olympics wouldn’t be just a massive party. It would be an opportunity to promote LGBT rights and broader human rights globally.

The Olympics has long been a force for advancing equality and fairness across lines of race, religion and nationality through its focus on pure athleticism. As the most high-profile female sporting event in the world, it has helped shatter gender stereotypes. Canadian Olympians are promoting LGBT acceptance in schools. And the IOC’s recent pledge to fight discrimination against LGBT people is a welcome step to expand queer rights especially given that 79 participating Olympic nations criminalize gay people in some way.

With the world’s eyes on Toronto, we would have a tremendous opportunity to show the world what an inclusive, LGBT-positive city — and country — looks like. We would be certain that LGBT athletes from around the world would have the right to express themselves and feel safe while at the Olympics. And we’d be almost certain to see openly LGBT athletes compete and win medals, demonstrating to the world that we are equals, we are brothers and sisters in our global community.

Recent Toronto events are instructive on these points. During the Pan Am Games, PrideHouseTO provided a safe and fun meeting space for LGBT athletes, delegates and spectators throughout the games. The opening ceremonies featured a new Cirque Du Soleil show that included same-sex romantic partners. Even those who didn’t partake, and even people who may have even been hostile to LGBT people, knew that it was happening — that this is what progress looks like.

During WorldPride, an event initially derided by some as a ridiculous corporate mega-party, activists held a major human rights conference and staged a mass same-sex wedding that has inspired copycat weddings around the world.

Toronto’s creative activists could rise to the opportunity presented by the Olympics to shine a light on LGBT rights.

Yes, there are problems with hosting an Olympic bid: chiefly that the Games are massively expensive. But even on this point, the IOC has begun to relent, and is now encouraging hosts to recycle venues with an eye to sustainability. We’ve already built most of the venues we’d need in order to host the Pan Am Games. Why not put them to more use?

Indeed, the biggest costs for hosting the Olympics relate to things we want to do anyway: building more transit to and around downtown Toronto and building an athlete’s village which would eventually be converted into new social and student housing that is desperately needed in Toronto’s core.

Those who argue that the additional money needed to put on the Olympics would be better spent on more housing may be right. But they’re wrong to phrase the Olympics and housing as an either-or proposition, when they’re actually in an if-neither relationship. The truth is that housing advocates have not done a good job getting the broader public and the politicians to care about housing. It never lands in the top 10 issues people care about in public opinion polls. The fact is, games proponents have been the loudest and strongest social housing advocates in Toronto for the last several decades, and they’ve delivered results: the Pan Am athletes’ village will soon be converted into 500 new student residences for George Brown, and social housing for 240 households, in addition to new market condos.

If we get behind an Olympic bid, our support should come with conditions. The Games must be unequivocal in their support for LGBT rights and in the promotion of LGBT peoples’ basic equality. We should have a guarantee that the government isn’t going to use the Games to pull support for local arts and services, as the Gordon Campbell government did in BC after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. We should have a plan in place to highlight LGBT events, performers and a human rights conference. And we should demand at least as much new transit and social infrastructure as was developed for the Pan Am Games.

None of these goals will be difficult to achieve. And if we accomplish all of this, the 2024 Toronto Games may be a beacon of tolerance and respect for the world’s LGBT people. A Toronto Olympics could be more than the biggest event in the city’s history — it could be a flashpoint for LGBT history around the world.