At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada won 14 gold medals – the most ever by a winter host country. An overtime victory in men’s hockey on the last day capped the haul. That win, on a bright and warm Sunday in Vancouver, with the cherry blossoms blooming early, ignited a giant party in the city and celebrations from coast to coast. Feb. 28, 2010, was a pretty awesome day.
Four years later, the Vancouver Organizing Committee closed its books on the Games. VANOC claimed to have broken even: $1.9-billion in revenue and $1.9-billion expenses. So much fun – and free!
Thing is, Olympic accounting is a unique sort of accounting. It involves more creative contortions than the free skate in pairs figure skating. Based on normal accounting, the Vancouver Olympics did not break even. Not even close.
First, it cost taxpayers about $600-million to build the venues. That public contribution was excluded from VANOC’s tally. Second, even by VANOC’s calculation, it lost $188-million – a gap filled by taxpayers. Third, security was a separate bill that topped $900-million – a cost five times more than initially forecast. That bill was also picked up by taxpayers. Add it all up, plus other items such as advertising, and the public tab was almost $2-billion, split between British Columbia and Ottawa. A gold medal in bookkeeping innovation goes to anyone claiming the Games were “breakeven.”
Then there’s the athletes’ village, which the City of Vancouver had to save from failure with a $690-million loan when the developer couldn’t finish the condos. The city lost more than $100-million. Further, there were several billion dollars in Olympic-related infrastructure, including the Canada Line and Highway 99. All of these have lasting value, but they might have been built differently or at later dates absent the Olympics.
The point of this history is to provide some context for judging the claims of promoters of Vancouver and Whistler playing host to the Winter Olympics in 2030. The wonders of those 14 gold medals get played up. The particulars of the full bill – footed by taxpayers of Canada and B.C. – tend to go unmentioned.
Last week, as the Winter Games began in Beijing, the Canadian Olympic Committee signed a deal with Vancouver, Whistler, B.C., and four First Nations – the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh – to look at bidding to host in 2030. It’s billed – give them credit for creative framing – as an “Indigenous-led Games.” The broader pitch began to take shape two years ago, when the former head of VANOC suggested the Games could be mounted on the cheap using old venues. Be skeptical.
Promising to use established venues has become the big sell for the dwindling number of cities and countries willing to bid for the Olympics. It can make an Olympics less expensive, but it doesn’t make it inexpensive. Nor does it eliminate the need for significant public dollars.
Take the Los Angeles Summer Games of 2028. Venues include Memorial Coliseum, used for the 1932 and 1984 Olympics and which will play host to opening and closing ceremonies and track and field. L.A.’s “privately funded” budget is US$6.9-billion, up from an initial US$5.3-billion. To the extent the number keeps climbing, the city and state are on the hook for all of it. On top of that, an unknown amount of federal money will be needed for such things as security.
Calgary, host of the 1988 Winter Games, tried the old-venues-as-new strategy as part of a 2026 bid. But the budget still required at least $2.5-billion of public money. When it was put to a vote in 2018, Calgarians balked, with 56 per cent saying, “No thanks.”
Vancouver is in a better position to reuse existing venues, but there will still be costs. For one, there is no longer a speed-skating venue; it was turned into a sports community centre. The main hockey arena will be 35 years old by 2030. And there are those security costs, which taxpayers entirely assumed in 2010.
Last summer, when this page looked at the percolating idea of Vancouver 2030, our conclusion was this: “The first condition should be that Canadian taxpayers will contribute zero dollars to the Games.”
Private promoters should feel free to pursue their Olympic hosting dreams. But they should be told up front to expect no public money. Not one cent. Let’s not get blinded by the shiny allure of gold.
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