Money biggest obstacle for Calgary's Olympic bid
Can Calgary relive the glory days of the 1988 Winter Olympics and pull it off again in 2026?
A lot of people here are convinced it can.
But despite all the cheerleading and boosterism on the part of the business leaders, politicians and athletes behind the bid, there seems to be a whiff of desperation about it this time around.
Could it be because Calgarians desperately need something to look forward to? Something to organize themselves around other than the questionable future for fossil fuels on which so much of the city’s economy depends?
Is it because all those empty offices in the downtown core that once used to be occupied by geologists and geophysicists could hopefully be filled by Olympic organizers and bureaucrats?
Some are even hoping that Calgary’s unemployment rate, which at 8.2 per cent is much higher than Toronto’s or Vancouver’s, will go down once people start working on bringing the Games to town.
On the other hand, say those who oppose a bid, because Calgary is in the doldrums, maybe this is not the best time to be committing billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to a three-week party.
A plebiscite is to be held Nov. 13 and if a majority of voters approve, the bid for the 2026 games will go forward to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in January along with offers from Stockholm and Milano/Cortina, Italy. The winner will be announced in June.
A poll commissioned by city hall in August found that 53 per cent of respondents supported a bid, while 33 per were opposed, and 13 per cent undecided.
Although the plebiscite, which was demanded by the provincial government as a quid pro quo for a chunk of the funding, is not binding, it’s hard to believe that a formal bid would proceed if the majority of voters disapprove.
The bid corporation is being funded by three levels of government and it estimates total cost of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics would be $5.2 billion. Hard to believe that Calgary hosted the Winter Games in 1988 for $829 million — until then the most ever spent on a Winter or Summer Olympics.
But then $5.2 billion is a lot less than the $16 billion that Pyeongchang spent on its Winter Games earlier this year and the $50 billion for the Sochi games in 2014.
Calgary’s bid comes in low because it doesn’t plan to build many new facilities. Sites from the 1988 Games, such as the speed skating oval and the Saddledome will be refurbished; newer sites, such as the ski-jump in Whistler used for the 2010 Olympics (only 900 km to the west) will be upgraded; and the new arena in Edmonton will possibly be home to curling competitions (only 285 km to the north).
Last week Alberta’s NDP government committed $700 million to the cost of the Winter Games — $300 million less than organizers hoped for, but not many Calgarians were complaining out loud.
The federal government has been asked to throw in $1 billion and the cabinet is expected to announce its contribution before the plebiscite. The rest would come from City of Calgary coffers, the IOC, sponsorships, ticketing, and merchandising.
The bid committee is so excited about the prospect of hosting the 2026 Olympics that nary a word is said about the sliding reputation of the IOC and the difficulty it has these days attracting bidders for the Winter Games.
Neither does the bid committee openly question why the IOC would award games to authoritarian countries, such as China and Russia that don’t have to be accountable to their citizens for costs and have poor human rights records.
Rather, the bid is seen as a bet on a brighter future for Calgary.
Because these days no one is quite sure what the future holds for a city that in the early 1980s was confident enough to believe it could bring the Winter Olympics to Canada for the first time but is on much shakier ground now.
Gillian Steward is a Calgary-based writer and freelance columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @GillianSteward