Calgary city council’s decision to go ahead with a non-binding plebiscite on whether or not to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics is good news.
How the council got there wasn’t pretty. It was an acrimonious and chaotic process. But that’s okay, because that’s what any city considering an Olympic bid should put itself through: a frank debate about the costs and benefits.
Hosting a Winter or Summer Games can be punishingly expensive for local taxpayers (hello, Montreal). Those same people can also wake up to find themselves the owners of empty arenas, vacant housing and other unused or crumbling infrastructure after the overlords of the International Olympic Committee have flown back to Switzerland with the vast majority of the profits stuffed in the pockets of their bespoke European suits.
These bitter experiences explain in part why fewer and fewer cities want to be involved. The number bidding for the 2022 Winter Games dwindled from seven to two, before the IOC awarded it to Beijing. In 2017, the IOC simultaneously gave the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, after they were the only two cities willing to bid on the 2024 event.
As for the 2026 Winter Games, of seven original cities that showed an interest, only three – Calgary, Stockholm and Milan/Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy – are still in it. The Swedish and Italian bids are both facing resistance from skeptical politicians and citizens, just as Calgary’s is.
And now Calgarians will get their say on Nov. 13. They have a lot to think about.
The first and most obvious thing is that Olympic Games almost always run over-budget. Proponents of a bid have an interest in underestimating the costs and overselling the benefits. You could see that at play in the last-minute funding deal reached between the city, the province and Ottawa on Tuesday: The three somehow managed to lower their original combined $3-billion contribution to $2.875-billion, a mostly symbolic cut that likely saved the bid.
The city’s direct share is $390-million. But Calgarians should not kid themselves that the budget today will be the budget after all the races are run. If Calgary’s bid is accepted, there will be no going back. You can’t cancel an Olympic event because you didn’t foresee a contingency that caused a rise in the cost of, say, a speed-skating oval.
Calgary voters should, on the other hand, be pleased that the council has set a budget that was hammered out in a public debate, and to which it can be held. They should also note that these appear to be a no-frills Games that would use some of the infrastructure built when the city hosted, to great success, the 1988 Winter Games.
And they should recognize that, if they are willing to risk cost overruns, the rewards can be great. The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler are a good example. They cost $7-billion to stage, and there were some significant budget overruns, but few are begrudging that now. Those games built critical new infrastructure for the hosts and were a huge success for Canadian athletes, who proved they can compete in winter sports at an unprecedented level.
In spite of any legitimate cynicism about the IOC and its ethics, it can’t be denied that there is something magical about Olympiads. They bring people together in ways no politicians can. There is little question that the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in February helped contribute to the thaw between North and South Korea. Those games were over-budget by at least $3-billion. Was it worth it?
The Olympics also tend to introduce to the world a new generation of leaders whose first public exposure comes on the podium. On a national level, a successful bid for Calgary would showcase Canada’s diverse and multicultural country, and cement the growing city’s international reputation. It could also be a timely tonic for a province that is currently in a difficult economic downturn, but which might well be on the rise in eight years.
There are costs to hosting, and there are rewards. No one can predict exactly how things will play out.
But two questions that can be answered are, Has there been a reasonable amount of public debate about the costs, and do voters have enough information, based on past Winter Games around the world and from what their government has told them, to make a decision?
The answers are both yes.