The city of Calgary’s potential bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics appears to be heading for a premature end.
The city has already invested millions exploring the opportunity, but an increasing number of Calgary city councillors appear to be saying enough is enough.
A council committee voted 9-1 last week to decide whether to proceed with a bid, with the full 15-member council scheduled to vote on the motion Monday.
“I asked for this vote to confirm what our commitment is because there has been a change of tone on council and the opposition has been increasing on council,” Coun. Druh Farrell said.
Farrell said the increased opposition stems from a number of unresolved issues. She said the “rosy” economic reports presented to council have left many unanswered questions about how much the Games would actually cost and who would pay for them.
For example, a report done by the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC) last year said the Olympics could cost $4.6 billion dollars and have revenues of $2.2 billion.
“The more misinformation there was, the more trust on council has eroded. And in the end it comes down to trust when you are undertaking a $5 billion project,” Farrell said.
Farrell said many councillors are also concerned about who is conducting public engagement and how it’s being handled. Much of the proposed engagement would take place as the council would be nearing its final decision, including plans to hold a city-wide plebiscite on the issue
“If you can win over the critics and the skeptics then you have got a solid bid, but we haven’t done that,” Farrell said. “We have surrounded ourselves with Olympic boosters.”
Calgary-based Olympians pushing for bid
With the fortunes of Calgary’s bid dimming, a prominent group of Calgary-based Olympians is urging council to take a breath. The group, which included bobsledders Helen Upperton, Kaillie Humphries and Jesse Lumsden, encouraged council to allow the citizens of Calgary to participate in a plebiscite before deciding to move forward or not with the bid.
“There has been a lot of negativity around the Olympic games in recent years,” Lumsden acknowledged. “But Calgary has done it before and done it right. It was groundbreaking back then and really paved the way for future Games. We cannot compare ourselves to the bad apples who aren’t doing it properly.”
Lumsden said a Calgary bid would offer a chance to revitalize and refurbish many venues that were built for the 1988 Games.
Humphries also encouraged council to think long term about its decision.
“I’m a product of the ’88 Games, as is pretty much every single Canadian that is on the Olympic team now,” Humphries said. “Having the Games here, you’ll start to see the next wave in about 10, 15 years.”
IOC’s ‘damaged reputation’ standing in the way
Farrell said that beyond cost, many members of council simply don’t want to do business with the International Olympic Committee.
“They have shown an inability to fix their corruption issues,” Farrell said. “We met with the [IOC] and they talked very openly about changing their damaged reputation, but I have seen no details on what that means.
“And since then we had the whole reinstatement of Russia and the doping scandal, so it just doesn’t appear their willingness to change goes very deep. That’s the motivation for some members of council. I know it is for me.”
Lumsden said council needs to think bigger. He said the Olympics should be about what is possible for Calgary and Canada, not about the IOC.
“If you are going to be impactful, if you are going to do big things, there are going to be speed bumps but you can’t be cowards about it just because we have to deal with the IOC,” Lumsden stressed. “Great things come with roadblocks, with adversity. And if we can do it, we should continue to explore.”
Mayor eyeing historic investment in economy
Lumsden and the athletes have the support of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who has supported the bid from the outset.
Nenshi has said if council stops the bid, citizens won’t get a chance to have their say in a plebiscite. He also said the city doesn’t know how much funding could be available from other levels of government, the IOC and the private sector.
“I think [killing the bid] is remarkably shortsighted, particularly when we’re looking at an investment that would be historic into the economy of Calgary at a time when we desperately need investment,” Nenshi told reporters.
Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith also added her support.
“We’ve hosted two exceptionally successful Olympic Winter Games before,” Smith said. “There is every reason to believe we can do it again. Even if there are understandable concerns about undertaking such a project, we’re having a conversation well worth having.
“We are confident that the city councillors will provide the citizens of Calgary the chance to decide that vision by proceeding with a plebiscite.”
Farrell said that’s something she’s not in favour of.
“I am not a big fan of plebiscites. I was elected to make decisions and based on what I know what now, I am a firm no,” she said.
“Calgary has a history of pursuing those big unicorns. That one big thing that will rescue us. I am a native Calgarian. I was here in `88 and it was a wonderful time, but I would like to try something new.”