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Calgary’s pro- and anti- 2026 Winter Olympics forces marshal resources for vote

The precise wording for Calgary’s plebiscite on whether to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics has not been decided, nor has the date for the vote, but campaign teams and fundraising drives for the Yes and No sides are already emerging.

The Yes side has experienced political strategists and Olympic glam while the No team expects to be outspent and is short on flash. Both pitch themselves as “grassroots,” Alberta’s favourite political buzzword.

Their campaign characteristics will define the fight for votes in a plebiscite short on rules.

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The vote is expected to take place in November and cost about $2-million. It’s not binding, but the outcome will carry weight for municipal, provincial and federal politicians deciding whether to back the Games. Further, the International Olympic Committee will look at the results as it evaluates suitable hosts.

The Yes side says the city has a backlog of infrastructure it must build and fix up, and the Olympics would help support the case for funding. Those in the No camp argue that funding the Olympics would direct municipal cash away from that backlog. Proponents say the Olympics would lift Calgary’s spirits and standing in the world; opponents counter that the city cannot afford to buy itself a better mood, and the money would be best spent on boring but necessary improvements.

Members of the Yes and No campaigns are playing it safe by lobbying for support while trying not to come off as close-minded diehards.

“I’m a Yes, but I’m not a Yes at all costs,” said Jeff Christie, a two-time Olympian in luge. “It has to make sense financially and we aren’t sure about that yet. We never said, ‘Yes, at all costs,’ and I don’t think there’s many people out there who would say that.”

Mr. Christie rallied Olympians earlier this year when city councillors opposed to the Games were on the verge of garnering enough support from their fellow politicians to kill Calgary’s bid aspirations. The last-minute push – with Olympians at the forefront – swayed enough councillors to keep the process alive.

“At the time, it seemed like the people who were against it were the only ones being heard,” Mr. Christie said.

Daniel Gauld, the founder of No Calgary Olympics, knows facing off against Mr. Christie and his athletic pals will be challenging, regardless of the substance of the arguments.

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“[I] work out and try to stay in shape, but we don’t look nearly as good on a stage as a bunch of gold-medal athletes,” he said.

About 10 people are working with No Calgary Olympics, Mr. Gauld said. The group, which is largely reliant on social media, has a reach of fewer than 200 Twitter followers and expects few donations. But it hopes to model itself on No Boston Olympics, a campaign that helped thwart that city’s 2024 Summer Olympic chances.

No Olympics Calgary, like the proponents, maintains it is more than a stubborn group.

“We’re not necessarily ‘No Olympics,’” he said. “We’re ‘No Olympics right now.’”

City council has yet to finalize how the plebiscite’s question will be worded, but the politicians are leaning toward phrasing that will result in Yes or No answers.

The rules governing municipal plebiscites are part of provincial legislation that lacks rules on donations, spending and financial disclosure. Proponents and opponents do not have to register to pitch their side to voters.

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Mr. Christie has joined forces with several seasoned political strategists who all have been top officials on Naheed Nenshi’s successful Calgary mayoral bids. These proponents aim to raise $300,000 to $500,000. They also want Calgary’s business leaders to publicly support the push.

Those opposing the Games know their budgets will be much smaller. Colin Craig, the Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, expects his organization’s fundraising campaign will collect less than $40,000. It has set up a donation website, although it has not promoted it yet.

“I would expect that we’re going to get fully outgunned financially because there will be a lot of proponents that could benefit substantially by proceeding with an Olympic bid,” he said, pointing to people who want a new arena built as an example.

Scott Hutcheson, a Calgary businessman and former ski racer, was appointed chair of Calgary’s 2026 Olympic bid committee on Thursday . The committee, which does not yet have a chief executive, is in charge of proposing a new budget and plan for hosting the Games. It is expected to release this before the plebiscite, but a formal bid book would not come until early next year.

The bid committee’s plan will be fundamental in the plebiscite. The most recent Olympic budget available to Calgarians is $4.6-billion, but this did not account for inflation or include the cost of building venues. The revised price tag is expected to be higher.

Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic bid was put to a vote, and turnout was the highest of any plebiscite in the city’s history. Of the nearly 135,000 eligible residents who voted in February of 2003, 64 per cent were in favour.

Even though the results were non-binding, it sent a strong message to the International Olympic Committee.

“Obviously, the more people you get on your side the better, but I think a win is a win,” said John Furlong, the Vancouver Organizing Committee’s CEO, who has been advising Calgary organizers.

He also points out that money is not necessarily the key to success. “Plebiscites are very hard to do. And the inspired opposition tend to show up.”

But winning is influential. “It demonstrated loudly to the people watching and adjudicating our bid, mainly the IOC and the international sports community, that we had the ability to rally [our] community,” he said.

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