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Alberta Calgary voters reject city’s pursuit of 2026 Winter Olympics

A Calgarian arrives to vote in a plebiscite on whether the city should proceed with a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, in Calgary, Alta., on Nov. 13, 2018.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Calgary’s bid for the 2026 Winter Games is over after voters decisively rejected the Olympic movement and promises that the event would be an economic boon for the struggling city.

About 56 per cent of Calgarians who cast ballots in a plebiscite on Tuesday voted against continuing with the bid, which had the support of a well-funded Yes campaign and Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who argued the proposed bid was a good deal that would see more than $2-billion in federal and provincial money flow into projects the city needs. Instead, Calgarians appeared swayed by concerns that the city’s battered economy could not afford the multibillion-dollar event.

The vote is a rebuke for the International Olympic Committee from a city that prides itself as a winter sports capital and leaves only Stockholm and a joint Italian bid in contention for the 2026 Games. Three other cities — one in Austria and two in Switzerland — previously held votes on whether to bid for the Olympics in 2026 and their residents similarly rejected the idea.

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Mr. Nenshi said he was disappointed by the outcome but the result was clear. While the plebiscite was non-binding, he said city council would likely vote to suspend the bid on Monday.

“We saw a clear number, we saw a clear voter turnout, and I take my direction from citizens,” Mr. Nenshi told reporters at city hall. “Clearly, the citizens thought this wasn’t the right project at this time."

The campaigns for and against the Olympic bid communicated two widely divergent messages in the weeks before Tuesday’s vote. The Yes side tapped into near universal nostalgia for the successful 1988 Games.

The No side stressed that the city and its residents could not afford the estimated $5.1-billion cost of throwing a two-week party. They pointed to Calgary’s downtown, where more than a quarter of the city’s office space sits empty. Calgarians have endured years of economic stagnation in the face of persistently low oil prices.

“It was a battle of heart versus mind," said Duane Bratt, the chair of policy studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. "People want to support the Games, but they’re concerned about the costs. The last-minute deal has scared some people. If this was 2014 Calgary, this would be a slam-dunk Yes, but this isn’t 2014.”

Erin Waite, an organizer for the main opposition group, said Calgarians had been turned off by a disorganized bid process and the financial risk of hosting the Olympics.

“When they looked at information beyond the emotional idea of hosting an Olympics, they realized that it’s not the right project for Calgary today and there are other things we can do with a major investment,” Ms. Waite said in an interview.

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She said the vote was a chance for Calgarians to decide what the city’s priorities should be. Instead of the Olympics, which was expected to tie-up most of Calgary’s investment budget for the next decade, members of the No side pointed to the city’s new gleaming central library as an example of where the money could go to instead.

Ms. Waite also said the vote should send a message to the International Olympic Committee. “I would hope that the IOC gets a strong message from this… I think they have a lot of work to do to make the experience of the Olympics good for athletes and for people that aren’t directly participating. It’s just too big and truly a circus.”

The Calgary 2026 bid corporation, whose leadership appeared surprised with the level of opposition and negativity they faced ahead of the vote, heralded the process as invaluable for a city in search of a “new vision of hope.”

"We really wanted this dream for Calgary to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games," said Mary Moran, the CEO of Calgary 2026. "We learned so much about our community. We learned so much about each other."

A statement from Calgary 2026 said the bid corporation would wrap up operations in the coming weeks.

Alberta Culture and Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda said the province would respect the wishes of Calgary’s voters. Premier Rachel Notley had made a successful plebiscite a requirement for the city to receive provincial funding.

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While council and Mr. Nenshi had promised Calgarians that they would see a funding deal for the games at least 30 days before the plebiscite, the three levels of government did not agree to a proposal until late October.

The public was expected to spend $2.875-billion on the Games if Calgary was chosen as host: $1.45-billion from the federal government and $700-million from Alberta. Calgary has been asked to put forward $390-million, along with a $200-million insurance policy against overruns. After the deal was reached, a majority of the council voted against continuing the bid, though that fell short of the two-thirds threshold required to kill it.

Venues left over from Calgary’s 1988 Olympics were the backbone of the bid. To keep costs down, the bid proposed refurbishing 11 of those venues in the city and the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary.

The Games would have required the construction of only two new arenas and an athletes village that would eventually become more than 1,000-units of affordable housing.

Before the vote, Mr. Nenshi argued cost overruns would be unlikely because of a $1-billion cushion built into the budget and further contingencies. Both Ottawa and the Alberta government had said they would not cover cost overruns.

The two remaining bids for the 2026 Games are Stockholm, Sweden, and a combined proposal from the northern Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. The International Olympic Committee accepted the Italian bid in early November despite a lack of financial support from the country’s federal government. The IOC president noted the Italian offer, near the Olympic group’s Swiss home, was “very strong.” The IOC will vote to award the 2026 Games in June.

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