LANE ONE: Decision day coming this week for Calgary (and the IOC) for 2026

The Calgary City Council could end the city’s bid for the Olympic Winter Games in 2026 on Monday or Tuesday after a detailed projection of the costs of the event is presented by the Yes Calgary 2026 group.

The city has been going back and forth about whether to bid for the Games and the Council scheduled a potential “off-ramp” vote for Monday, but with the public presentation of the budget specifics, the actual vote could be pushed off for a day.

If the Council votes to continue, then the decision of whether to go forward with the bid will rest with the citizens of Calgary, who will vote in a referendum on the bid on 13 November of this year.

Recognizing the prerogative of voters as the ultimate decision makers, the Calgary Herald reported that the Yes Calgary 2026 folks believe the Council will allow the bid to go forward; one staffer estimated the vote at 11-4.

But, as is usually the case, the financial projections have been leaked and appeared in local media last week. In Canadian dollars, the Yes Calgary 2026 projections for the Winter Games and Winter Paralympic Games will cost C$5.8 billion, to be covered in two parts:

∙ C$2.5 billion (43%) raised by the organizing committee, including the roughly $1 billion (U.S.) in cash, goods and services from the International Olympic Committee, and

∙ C$3.3 billion (57%) from “federal, provincial and municipal” govenments, which includes the City of Calgary.

The costs for physical infrastructure improvements would provide “a new field house, a replacement arena for the [Stampede Corral Arena], upgrades to existing facilities, an endowment fund to support the legacy of the Games and affordable housing for thousands of residents.”

Half of the governmental support would be expected to come from the national government, about a third from the Province of Alberta and the remainder – perhaps C$500 million – from the city. There is no formal agreement to this funding program, but if the estimate for the city was right, a C$500 million expenditure is within the city’s grasp. The annual city budget in Calgary is C$3.5 billion and the city’s 2014-18 capital program budget is C$5.8 billion, funded principally by debt and reserves. Calgary is home to 1.3 million people; it hardly resembles its “Cowtown” nickname any more.

So the city can afford it, but the No Calgary Olympics group is lobbying the Council to drop the bid now and not wait for the referendum. A CBC story quoted No spokeswoman Erin Waite as saying “I’m frustrated with the structure of an IOC bid process that we are in this position to be absolutely panicked and to be concerned that we’re not even going to have cost information and understand what a bid looks like before having to vote on it.”

If quoted correctly, Waite has no idea what she’s talking about. The IOC’s process has been known for a long time and doesn’t really get going until January of 2019 with the candidature file is due. And there’s little doubt that the IOC will be somewhat flexible given the 13 November referendum.

The Yes Calgary 2026 folks have been holding rallies in the city to underscore support for the bid; the same CBC story noted that “Bobsledder Christina Smith competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics and said singing in the choir during the 1988 Olympics was what lit her spark to compete.

“‘Because of that moment, it ignited such a drive to become an Olympian,’ she said.” Is that the best reason for having the Games? Let’s hope not.

Getting financial help from the IOC to help underwrite the cost of some new facilities in nice, but how much does it cost to get the help? According to the leaked financial projections, it will take C$3.3 billion – plus security costs in the hundreds of millions – to make the Games work financially. Is that worth it?

The “no” folks can just say the cost doesn’t justify the benefits. The promoters need to dig deeper to bring forward an understanding of the opportunity that a Games brings to an area.

Having worked on 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, my view is that the benefits of a new stadium or arena or housing can usually be had for less money than that required by having an Olympic Games. But it is politically much more difficult. Once the Games are scheduled, every politician and city department head will propose new concepts to be completed ‘in time” for the Olympics.

That’s the very paradigm of waste. The “Yes” folks have realized this and are smartly downplaying mega-projects that could be attached to the bid as unnecessary and silly.

But the unparalleled opportunity that an Olympic Games brings is attention. What can Calgary – which last hosted the Winter Games back in 1988 – do with the focus that will be on it for a minimum of two years from 2024-26 and even earlier from some quarters. Promote new business sectors? Expand the city’s charitable outreach? Attract new investment by showcasing the quality of its labor force? This is the reason to have a Games, as leverage for a better future, for the competing athletes and for the host city. But is Calgary’s vision equal to the opportunity? That’s the debate they should be having.

Rich Perelman

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