Q&A: Säad Rafi, CEO of the Toronto Pan Am Games, on leading the most polarizing event since the G20

Q&A: Säad Rafi, CEO of the Toronto Pan Am Games, on leading the most polarizing event since the G20

You were the widely respected deputy minister of health, making $428,000 a year. Then you accepted this highly controversial job at Pan Am Games, a position packed with potential pitfalls. What were you thinking?
Every job has its downside. I was excited about the rewards for the region, which has never hosted an event of this size. We’ll have more venues than the Vancouver Olympics and twice the number of athletes, officials and coaches.

Your predecessor, Ian Troop, presided over a comical string of expense claims for pricy dinners, fancy wines, $2,946 for a transatlantic flight, and more. What have you done to rein in the extravagant spending?
Ian made some policy changes, and I made more. I now sign off on all international trips for staff, for instance.

In 2011, an employee expensed the cost of relocating a pet from Vancouver. Please tell me you fired that person.
No, look, I took psychology in undergrad, so I know that putting an employee on public display like that doesn’t change the behaviour of others. I prefer to talk to our new hires at the outset about expectations of working with public funding.

Included in expense claims you released was $1,288 for Harry Rosen dress shirts. Were those yours?
No, they were shirts for Mr. Troop, branded with the Toronto 2015 Games insignia, and meant to be worn at Pan American Sporting Organization meetings, where such clothing is standard.

Have security plans changed in light of the attack on Parliament Hill?
The threat level remains unchanged. I don’t know the technical term, but I think it’s at medium. Spectators can expect an experience akin to going to a Jays game.

So there won’t be snipers on the roof?
No. It’s a sporting event, not a security event.

Which of the events are you most excited to see?
Wheelchair rugby. It’s violent and fast, and it was invented by Canadians.

Are you athletic?
Somewhat. My greatest athletic asset is my speed. I came to Canada from Karachi when I was four, and with a weird name, I got teased. Saäd became “Sod” and “Mud,” and Rafi became “Ravioli.” I was also a smartass, and in order to mouth off and not get pummelled, I had to be fast. In high school, my speed helped me become a competent basketball, softball and soccer player.

Can we talk about the Pan Am mascot? A porcupine is neither friendly nor emblematic of Toronto.
Four young girls from Markham won the design contest. The mascot has 41 quills, representing the 41 Pan Am countries, and porcupines are sight-impaired, which speaks beautifully to the Parapan aspect of the Games.

Touché. The region will welcome 250,000 visitors during the Games. How will you mitigate the special traffic hell that will rain down upon Toronto motorists?
We’ll encourage people to work from home, we’ll make use of the HOV lanes for athletes and volunteers, and we hope to offer free transit for spectators with a ticket for an event that day.

Do you expect to meet your $1.44-billion budget?
We’re currently under, though we’ll soon start to incur expenses to take us to 100 per cent or just below it.

There are 1.4 million tickets available for the Pan Am and Parapan Games. How are sales going?
We’ve sold 285,000, and that’s right where we want to be at this stage.

What will you do after the Games are over? You’ve got bureaucratic skills and now experience in the spotlight. Am I sniffing a run for office?
Never. Being a politician is very difficult. Most jobs I’ve had have been relentless, but politics is a different kind of relentless. The scrutiny is almost always unfair.

So that’s a maybe?
Ha, no, but I’m glad you asked. This job is all-consuming, so I haven’t even thought about my next adventure, and I guess I should start. All the more reason to make sure this one goes as planned.