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Alberta Calgary’s Olympics bid sucked into an information vacuum, eroding confidence and enthusiasm

Calgary could not host the Winter Games without Canmore, Alta. – seen here on April 5, 2018 – which is home to the Nordic facility built for the 1988 Olympics.

Chris Bolin

Joanna McCallum sat with her elected colleagues – five councillors and the mayor of Canmore – on a raised platform in the town’s civic centre on Tuesday. The group discussed, amended, and approved a code of ethics. They listened to a presentation about replacing an outdoor rink. They asked about the proposed gravel parking spots and toilets near the rink. Then came the Olympics.

Canmore’s town council considered whether to nominate its chief administrative officer to the board of a bid corporation that will further develop Calgary’s aspirations to hold the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. It will take months to staff the bid corporation, known as BidCo, but determining its directors is the first step. It would cost some of the CAO’s time, but no cash from the town.

Ms. McCallum opposed the motion, arguing the mountain town should not direct any more of its CAO’s attention toward the Olympics because Calgary has not provided enough details about its vision for the Games.

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“I feel like a lot of the questions and the information that I was looking for would be provided within this time period already, and it hasn’t been,” the councillor said. “So this is my off-ramp.”

Calgary’s plan to bid for the 2026 Olympics is increasingly controversial among municipal politicians. A growing number of Ms. McCallum’s counterparts in Calgary say they have not been kept in the loop as city officials work on the Olympic project. The fight over how information has been distributed is drowning out debate over the actual contents of that information. Calgary’s Olympic process, rather than the results of its work so far, is eroding confidence and enthusiasm for the project.

This comes as a key deadline approaches: The International Olympic Committee will decide in September which cities get to continue the bid process based on the quality of their Olympic budgets and plans. A complete bid book is due in January, 2019.

Calgary’s administration, in documents released on Friday outlining its public consultation plans, acknowledged it has an information problem.

“Public perception around transparency of the city’s exploration of 2026 [Olympics] bid may have been negatively impacted by a perceived lack of detailed information shared with the public up until now,” said the documents prepared for the council’s priorities and finance committee meeting on April 10. “Concerted efforts will be required to maintain transparency and offer balanced and neutral information.”

The bid corporation is supposed to produce a precise plan. A blueprint from an exploration committee said the Games would cost $4.6-billion and run a deficit. That did not account for inflation or the cost of facilities that have not been constructed. The IOC has since relaxed standards, such as seating capacity at venues, and made other concessions to help potential bid cities reduce costs, and that means Calgary has spent months reconsidering proposed venues and potential upgrades. That, however, does not mean costs will drop.

The city could not hold the Games without Canmore, which is home to the Nordic facility built for the 1988 Olympics. An athletes’ village would likely be there, too.

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A display case at Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, seen on April 5, showcases items from the 1988 Olympic Games.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Canmore Mayor John Borrowman, as with the rest of his town’s council save for Ms. McCallum, supported nominating the CAO to the bid corporation.

“I’m expecting, through a BidCo, to have much more fulsome information,” he said in an interview. So far, Calgary’s council has empowered its administration to formulate plans. How the Olympics would affect Calgary has been central to that mandate. The BidCo, Mr. Borrowman hopes, will give Canmore more attention because Calgary politicians and bureaucrats will no longer have full control.

“A BidCo is autonomous,” Mr. Borrowman said. “They are not constrained by political concerns immediately.”

The board is expected to have 19 directors, including Canmore’s representative.

The BidCo’s structure means it not subject to Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, according to a Calgary spokeswoman Kaila Lagran. This keeps competitive information away from six other countries considering bids, but limits access for locals. (Similar restrictions applied for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic bid).

The debate over what documents should be kept secret heated up late last year, when The Globe and Mail obtained one of two unreleased reports that dismissed rosy estimates of the potential for economic benefits. Even councillors were in the dark. City bureaucrats apologized and released the reports.

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Councillors were also angered over other blunders. For example, Calgary could not form the new board until it had financial support from the province and the federal government. The city posted a document online in mid-March that said it had secured the cash. The statement was retracted the same day, and officials said it was posted accidentally.

Calgary needs $25-million to $30-million to complete a bid, and had until the end of March to tell the IOC whether it would continue. The IOC is scheduled to select the host city in September, 2019. (Forming the bid corporation does not mean Calgary actually will bid.) A federal minister announced on Twitter just before the Easter weekend that Ottawa and the province would provide funding. Alberta’s commitment came with a condition. The provincial government, suffering after years of falling revenue from energy royalties, would not give any money beyond its BidCo contribution without a plebiscite to gauge public support for a bid.

Calgary councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart is irked the city agreed. “Who did this? Who made this decision,” she said in an interview. She has supported the Olympic process, but is reconsidering.

The results of a plebiscite would not be binding. It is not known who will pay the expected cost of about $1.96-million. It’s also unclear what question – or questions – will be on the ballot. The timing has not been determined, although it must be after the bid book is released. City officials suggest it could be held between October, 2018, and February, 2019.

Calgary, the federal government, the provincial government, and the Canadian Olympic Committee each get to nominate three people to the BidCo’s board. The Canadian Paralympic Committee gets a seat, and the members will appoint four directors at-large. Another at-large member will serve as the chair and must be approved by Calgary, the provincial government, the federal government and the COC.

Back in Canmore, Ms. McCallum may be upset, but she is much calmer than her Calgary counterparts.

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“I really feel like our community engagement needs to be ... ” she said, before her own cracking voice interrupted her. “This is very emotional. I’m sorry.”

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