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1994 Commonwealth Games changed Victoria forever

This is the first in a series of columns that will appear every other Sunday, leading up to the party on Aug. 23 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Victoria’s Commonwealth Games.
New_Centennial Stadium.jpg
Opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games at Centennial Stadium, Aug. 18, 1994

This is the first in a series of columns that will appear every other Sunday, leading up to the party on Aug. 23 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Victoria’s Commonwealth Games.

Does hosting a major one-off event fundamentally alter the nature of a city on some civic genetic level?

Is Greater Victoria a different place for having hosted the 1994 Commonwealth Games? Or did it even matter? Was it just a carnival that took over the town for two weeks and then packed its tents and left with no discernible impact of lasting value?

These are questions every city that has hosted an Olympics, Summer or Winter, or Commonwealth, Pan- American or Asian Games asks itself once all the athletes and television cameras have left and all the downtown performance stages have been taken down.

This is especially so on anniversaries, which Victoria is celebrating in a big way this summer with a large outdoor party planned for Aug. 23 at the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence on the Camosun College Interurban Road campus that is expected to attract several thousand people celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

In many ways, the long-term impact of a Games is related to where a city is in its development. This is also the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games (then known as the British Empire Games). It can be argued that those Games were the catalyst that transformed Vancouver from a sleepy Pacific backwater to the vibrant Pacific Rim player we see today. In that sense, Vancouver 1954 might have been more important to the city than the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Boosters in the Australian cities of Perth and Brisbane, which hosted the Commonwealth Games respectively in 1962 and 1982, also make the case that the emergence of those cities from regional to a world-class destination can directly be attributed to having hosted the Games.

The argument has been made over the past quarter-century that Calgary, no shrinking violet even beforehand, became even more brashly dynamic in outlook and attitude since the 1988 Winter Olympics.

This Games-as-message argument was most evident in 1964, when Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics as a symbol to the world that Japan had emerged from under the long, dark shadow of the Second World War as a sleek, modern nation. (To drive home the point, Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb exploded, lit the cauldron to open the 1964 Games.)

On that model, it’s not surprising the wave of “next in line” countries — or the BRIC nations as they have also been called — that have taken to hosting Games as sort of — some would say perverse — economic coming-out parties. This rush includes the 2008 Beijing and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games as well as the 2014 and 2018 FIFA soccer World Cups in Brazil and Russia, respectively.

Clearly, something is being stated here. This can’t be a fluke coincidence.

On the converse side, what more could the 2012 London Summer Olympics have done to add to that city’s already established world stature? Not much. Also, Tokyo with the 2020 Summer Olympics. What’s that all about? It’s not 1964 anymore.

So where does Victoria’s Games fall into all this? How did it affect us?

In ways that aren’t always evident on the surface, says Lois Smith, the director of sport administration for the 1994 Games, who is helping organize the upcoming 20-year anniversary celebrations at PISE.

“I believe it changed this city forever,” says Smith.

“It gave us an attitude that we can do it. That led to us going after FIFA [2007 U-20 World Cup] and two world curling championships. Without the pool [Saanich Commonwealth Place], there might not have been a [two-time Olympic diver] Riley McCormick or a [two-time Olympic medallist swimmer] Ryan Cochrane. Without the velodrome, there might not have been [Olympic-medallist track cyclist Gillian Carleton]. None of this would have happened without the Commonwealth Games. The physical legacy has attracted so many national team Olympic athletes to train here.”

But it’s the non-physical legacy that might be the most important.

“With 14,000 Games volunteers, and people who just took it all in around town, it engaged the entire community,” added Smith.

“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to this city.”

While some might argue with that latter assessment, there is no denying that hosting the Games had an impact and left an imprint on us. It usually does on Games host cities, for bad or good.

After the debacle of 1976, Montreal may never again want to see the inside of a velodrome or host another decathlete. But Edmonton feels its experience of hosting the 1978 Commonwealth Games was so important, it wants to do it again and has thrown its sweatband back into the ring. The Alberta capital is bidding anew — with the race for the 2022 Commonwealth Games down to Edmonton and Durban, South Africa.

It is doubtful Victoria has the political will to pull something like that off again anytime soon. But an anniversary to commemorate having successfully done it two decades ago? Now, maybe that’s something worth celebrating in August.