Calgary 2026 Olympics: To bid or not to bid?

An edited version of this blog was published by CBC News Calgary as part of their "Calgary at a Crossroads" feature, January 23, 2017.  

“How many Calgarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Ten. One to screw in the light bulb and nine to talk about how great the ’88 Winter Olympics were.”  This was a popular joke in Alberta in the early ‘90s. 

This is not a joke!

Speaking of jokes, it seemed like a joke in June 2016 when the rumour started that Calgary was thinking about bidding for the 2026 Winter Olympics given the City and Province is in the middle of one of its biggest recessions in their history.  That “joke” seems to be getting more and more traction especially with City Council giving five million dollar to a hand-picked committee of sport and Olympic boosters to determine if indeed Calgary should bid again.

It’s the ‘80s all over again!

It is ironic that the current economic climate is very similar to that of the early ‘80s when the ‘88s bid was made.  The City’s collective swagger had disappeared in the early ‘80s after the boom of the ‘70s, not unlike today.

Calgary’s energy industry was in the dumpster in the ‘80s (due to the National Energy Policy introduced by then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau). Today, it is in the dumpster because of a glut of world oil and the introduction of a Carbon Tax (introduced by now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau) due to current research that carbon fuels (in particular, the oil sands) are dirty energy.

Downtown’s vacant office space reached 18% in the mid ‘80s; today it is 22% and rising.  Another interesting comparison - the Performing Arts Centre (now Arts Commons) opened in 1985, in 2016 the new National Music Museum opened and the new Central Library will open in 2018. 

Back in 1981 the south leg of the LRT opened followed by the 1985 opening of the northeast leg with the northwest line linking downtown with the University of Calgary  - in time for the 1988 Olympics. Fast forward to today - in 2012 the West Leg of LRT opened and today we are looking at how to finance the Green Line (i.e. the North and Southeast leg combined).

The early ‘80s also saw the completion of Deerfoot Trail to the southern edge of the city; today’s equivalent is the completion of the Ring Road.

In the 1980 municipal election, few expected Ralph Klein to become mayor; in the 2010 election, few expected Naheed Nenshi to win.  Klein served three terms winning subsequent elections in landslides.  Nenshi has announced he will seek a third term in 2017 and everyone expects he will win easily.  Both were/are populist politicians and masters of the media.

In the ‘80s, Calgary was suffering Edmonton envy as they had an NHL team and we didn’t.  Today, Calgary’s envy is because they have a shiny new NHL arena and we don’t.

Is this the right time?

One could argue “Yes” as all of the ’88 legacy facilities are in desperate need of updating. The Olympic Plaza’s bricks are crumbling; the Saddledome doesn’t work for NHL hockey or major concerts, the Oval and Canada Olympic Park’s facilities don’t meet current Olympic standards. 

The Mayor has indicated CalgaryNext (new arena, stadium and fieldhouse proposal) would not be tied to any Olympic bid as the International Olympic Committee looks more favourably on cities that refurbish existing facilities. But you can bet that if we get the Olympics, we will get a new arena and upgraded stadium.    

Since the ’88 Olympics, Calgary has become the adopted home of many winter athletes who live and train here year-round.  Today, eight national winter sports organizations call Calgary home. In the early ‘80s, there were none.  Continuing to have Calgary as Canada’s premiere winter sports city is important to Calgary’s identity and tourism.

As hosting the Winter Olympics also includes a major cultural celebration, it would allow Tourism Calgary to showcase our new arts, architecture and attractions.  

Since 1988, Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010) have hosted successful Winter Olympics, which have elevated their status as world-class skiing, event and tourism cities.

Is this the wrong time?

The times have changed since 1988. It is estimated the bill for security alone for the 2026 Winter Olympics could exceed 1.5 billion dollars (the Vancouver Olympics spent one billion). One could easily argue this money would be better spent on schools, hospitals and recreation centres used by all Calgarians.  It is costing the City $5 million just to determine if we want to bid or not, which could have built 25 affordable homes for needy families and individuals. 

Others question why Calgary and Canada would want to be involved with the Olympic movement given the corruption of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members and the prevalence of athlete doping.  IOC members have a history of secret bank accounts, taking bribes and/or opulent gifts in return for their vote. They also travel in 5 star hotels and restaurants, while the athletes, (including Canada’s) live near poverty levels.

Every potential 2022 Olympic host city with a democratically elected government pulled out of the bidding, many citing cost concerns. The only two cities left in the bidding were Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Beijing won. What does that say?

The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 were widely considered a success, mainly because it helped the nation show the world how much it had emerged as a modern economic power. "Beijing did it as an advertisement. They got tremendous value because they didn't care about the cost. It was like buying a ton of television ads," said Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. (CNN Money, July 30, 2012)

No other mega–project consistently overruns its budget like the Olympics. Research also points out there are always significant government costs that should be, but aren’t attributed to the Games (in Calgary, that could include new arena, stadium improvements and LRT to airport). In addition, the economic benefits of the Games that are postulated by government agencies are rarely realized.

(Riley, Charles. “6 Olympic Budget Blowouts.” CNN Money. 2014. Updated January 20, 2014. Accessed: November 19, 2014.)

Calgary needs to get its swagger back

I was surprised when I asked dozens of friends and colleagues over the holidays “Do you think Calgary should bid for the 2026 Olympics?” Nobody said,  “Yes!” 

In fact, one parent of a potential athlete at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 said he didn’t think it is a good idea because of the corruption of the IOC and the fact Olympic funding for programming and facilities benefits less than 1% of Canadian athletes. 

One of the things that made the Calgary Winter Olympics unique and successful was the use of thousands of volunteers (the teal green Olympic coats were worn proudly for years after the Olympics). It was their gold medal. The volunteers not only allowed the Games to make a profit, but it brought the city together. There was a common goal to make these games a financial success after the Montreal Olympic fiasco. 

When the 1988 Calgary Olympics were over there was a tremendous sense of civic pride, a renewed confidence and a feeling Calgary could become be transformed from a provincial Canadian prairie city to a more cosmopolitan city. Calgary got its swagger back in ’88.

Will it take until ’26 to get it back this time!

An Expert’s Opinion

Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary whose research is focused on the impact of the Olympics and World Fairs on cities told me “Mega events are always controversial.  These projects can fragment a city in the planning stages; while at the same time bring the city together during the event. They are valuable in grabbing the world’s attention and sending a message to the world that the city is ambitious.” At the same time, agrees that they are notoriously difficult to budget accurately and most often run over budget. 

Hiller notes, “Federal and provincial governments respond to city projects. If there are no projects, there is no reason to them to give Calgary extra money, it will go to some other city.” He points to how the Green Line project has enabled the Calgary to get special funding from senior levels of government.  

In Hiller’s experience “the Olympics give a city new purpose, new energy, it mobilizes people and bring them together.  Nothing touches people globally like the Olympics. People watch the Games who aren’t interested in sports at any other time.  The opening and closing ceremonies have some of the highest TV ratings ever.” 

His final comment to me -  “It is never black or white.”

Backstory: It is interesting to note that Hiller was not approached by the City to be on the Olympic Bid Evaluation Committee despite being probably the most qualified person to do so.

IMHO

If the politicians have an extra billion dollars to spend on security for the Olympics, a better idea might be to spend it on developing the infrastructure to create a major volunteer-based winter event in Calgary that will attract international attention annually not just for two weeks in 2026. 

Maybe something that rivals the Calgary Stampede (or perhaps something that builds on the Stampede) putting Calgary and Canada on the international map every winter - or even biennially - not just once every 40 years.  Something we control, not something we have to bid for!

Any brilliant ideas?   

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