There has been plenty of recrimination in the wake of Calgary voters' decision not to support a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. People who wanted the Games are angry at Ottawa for taking too long to decide on its contribution, at city residents for saying no to more than $2.1-billion in federal and provincial funding and at city councillors for voting against continuing the bid just two weeks before Tuesday’s decisive plebiscite.
Even the organizers of the bid are under fire, largely for failing to anticipate that there would be so much opposition to an Olympics whose budget would have been on the low end of the scale, and which would have reused venues left over from Calgary’s successful 1988 Winter Games.
The anger may be inevitable, but it is misdirected. The plebiscite outcome mirrors a sentiment felt in a growing number of cities around the world: that hosting the Olympics isn’t that great a deal.
“It is disappointing that the arguments about the sporting, social and long-term benefits of hosting the Olympic Games did not sway the vote,” a spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee said after the plebiscite, completely missing the point. That old tradeoff – you give us billions in free infrastructure and we give you the honour of hosting – has lost its appeal, and the blame rests entirely on the shoulders of the IOC.
In fact, the IOC is currently in a real fix when it comes to finding willing hosts. Calgary was the fifth city to express an interest in the 2026 Winter Games and then drop out. Only a joint bid from the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo and an application from Stockholm are still in play. In both cases, the organizers are facing stiff resistance from taxpayers who do not want even a penny of public money spent on an event that always delivers handsome returns for the IOC, but often offers limited benefits to the host city.
Last year, facing a kind of buyers' strike, the IOC had to simultaneously award 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 version.
The Olympics can be extraordinary events that unify the globe. And sometimes the public funds are put to good use, building needed, permanent infrastructure. Example: The money spent expanding and improving public transit in Vancouver for the 2010 Games.
If the Olympics could be designed to always deliver a financial win for all involved, cities and countries would be competing vigorously for the opportunity to host. Instead, bidders are dropping out because the public has begun to see the IOC’s relationship with its hosts as being more parasitic than mutually beneficial.
The IOC operates like a private club. It has 105 members, a good number of whom are the princes and princesses of various royal families. And it is incredibly wealthy. In 2016, it was sitting on US$970-million in cash, according to its annual report, and had total financial assets of US$2.9-billion.
And yet, the IOC expects host cities to assume the vast majority of the Games' costs. Its contribution historically is far less than that of the hosting taxpayers, even though it raises billions of dollars from international broadcast and licensing rights, and from a portion of ticket sales.
At the same time, the IOC has been caught up in high-profile bribery and corruption scandals involving some bidding processes. Its questionable record when it comes to athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs has also cast a shadow over its credibility.
The IOC has become, in the eyes of many, a greedy and remote sports-entertainment company, relying on its faded glory to induce its wide-eyed hosts into carrying the majority of the costs of the events that are its meal ticket.
It’s true that the IOC annually distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to sports organizations and coaching programs around the world, Canada included. But as it has grown richer and richer, it has failed to explain to the public why they should be on the hook to the degree that they are.
Calgarians who are disappointed that their fellow citizens declined to host the 2026 Winter Games should find solace in the fact their city is on the leading edge of a resistance that could force the IOC to change. People love the Olympics. But they are finally telling the IOC and its cloistered members that the IOC needs cities more than cities needs the IOC.