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Kanye West’s Pan Am Games gig shows Toronto dreaming big


Kanye West has been awarded more than a dozen Grammy Awards, sold millions of albums and married into America’s reality TV royalty. But, for some Canadians, the rapper’s resumé is missing one key word to qualify him as a headliner for the Pan Am Games’ closing ceremony — Canadian.

The organizers’ decision to include the “international superstar” may be a strategic move to boast Toronto’s ability to attract a global name to what many initially seemed to consider a lacklustre event.

But it can also be seen as the city wanting to test its marketability on the global stage in the event Toronto decides to push for bringing the Olympic Summer Games to Canada in 2024.

“It’s an interesting decision,” says Vijay Setlur, a sport marketing instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “I’m sure the organizers wanted to ‘go out with a bang.'”

Nationality outrage unfounded

Organizers announced a trio of headliners — West, Canadian Serena Ryder and Cuban-American Pitbull — this week.

In less than two days, more than 47,000 people signed a petition demanding a local artist replace West.

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Toronto Mayor John Tory initially mistook West for a ‘proud product’ of Toronto’s music community. (John Tory/Twitter)

“Why was a local artist or group not chosen and supported, just as our local athletes are throughout the games?” asks Change.org user XYZ, who started the petition. He’d prefer the likes of Drake, Feist or K’naan to grace the stage instead.

Some of the thousands who’ve signed the petition also suggested that Kanye West’s past controversies and apparent arrogance didn’t align with Canadian or Pan Am values.

They recalled the time West suggested Beck should hand over his album of the year Grammy Award to Beyoncé to “respect artistry,” and when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, also to defend Beyoncé’s musical talents.

They called West “not deserving,” “antithetical” to the Games’ spirit and “the epitome of a poor sport.”

But Setlur, for one, finds the outrage over West’s nationality unfounded.

“These are the Pan American Games,” he says. “Not the Pan Canadian Games.” He also argues that the trio of headliners represents a cross-section of the Americas.

Two counter-petitions started amid the outrage seem to agree, asking people to stop complaining about the talented artist’s upcoming performance. So far, about 400 people have signed the two petitions.

Slow start to ‘second-tier’ event

Securing a big name like West to close the show is “like the cherry on top of a chocolate milkshake” for the Games, Setlur says, noting they had a rough start in the city.

Leading up to the opening ceremony, many Torontonians seemed at best apathetic and at worst angry over the host city location.

The New York Times published a piece in early July accusing locals of being “indifferent” to the games. Some Torontonians expressed their outrage over traffic changes and HOV lane rules. And relatively few people purchased tickets to the upcoming events.

Many simply tuned out the Games, says Setlur. “Everybody knows the Olympics is the major event and anything other than that is second tier.”

Gold medal success

Richard Powers, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the president of Commonwealth Games Canada, also noted that the Games began amid a barrage of negativity.

“What did you hear about before? It was always: ‘Traffic, traffic, traffic… disruption, disruption, disruption.'” But now that Canadian athletes have stepped up, he says, “it’s ‘gold, gold gold.'”

Team Canada continued to lead the gold medal count Saturday with 45 first-place finishes. That number is holding the team’s top spot on the medal table, despite having five medals fewer than its main rival, the U.S.

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Gold, gold, gold. Calgary’s Kate O’Brien and Monique Sullivan show off their gold medals following the track cycling women’s team sprint at the Pan Am Games in Milton, Ont. on Tuesday. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

“The performances so far, I believe, have galvanized Canadians,” Powers says. “They’re getting out to support the athletes.”

Earlier this week, organizers announced more than 900,000 tickets had been sold and said they expect to sell another 100,000 minimum. Before the games, only about 800,000 had been purchased.

The Games will want to build on that momentum in the closing ceremony, says Cheri L. Bradish, who teaches sport marketing at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

The organizers selected “a global sports entertainment icon” like West to help thank the athletes for their performance, volunteers for their participation, as well as everyone else involved, she says.

It also sends a clear message.

Look at the star power that we can attract,” she says. West helps signal Toronto is a player and asks “What else can Toronto do on a global sports scene?”

Already, the NBA All Star game will take place in the city in February. Perhaps next is a possible bid for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games.

Canada is already “positioned really well” as a global sport nation, Bradish says.

The Pan Am Games will leave behind world class facilities, like a new velodrome in Milton, Ont., and multiple Olympic-size swimming pools.

For both the athletes, many of whom will go on to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and the city, the Pan Am Games “are all steps towards the Olympic Games,” Powers says.

“They’ve really shown that Toronto can handle an international event like this.”

CBC | Arts News