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The Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, west of Calgary, is seen in an April, 2018, file photo.

Chris Bolin

They don’t agree on hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics or what effect it would have on the local economy. But the rival factions in Calgary’s bid for its second Winter Games in 38 years can agree on one point: $5.23-billion will not be the final cost.

Yes Calgary, which is promoting a bid in the lead-up to the Nov. 13 plebiscite, is adamant that securing the Games would come with $3-billion in government funding and that means the real cost of the Olympics to Calgarians would be far less. (Neither the province nor Ottawa has committed to a figure yet.)

“It’s not a $5.2-billion cost when you’re getting the revenues,” said Stephen Carter, a strategist for the pro 2026 side.

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Those opposed to a Calgary bid, a group dubbing itself No Calgary, clarify they don’t want the Olympics "at this point in time.” Founder Dan Gauld says $5.23-billion is a colossal low-ball and he points out that the bid committee’s budget is projected to be less than than the $7.7-billion Vancouver spent on having the Winter Olympics in 2010.

But John Furlong, the former chief executive of the Vancouver Olympics, noted the true cost of 2010 was closer to $4-billion: The new rapid-transit line and convention centre built in time for the Games were never a project of the Vancouver Games organizers, nor should they have been put on the Olympic tab, he argued.

Mr. Carter, the political adviser who was the campaign manager that first got Naheed Nenshi elected mayor then later served as Premier Alison Redford’s chief of staff, admitted challenging the mindset surrounding the $5.23-billion price tag will not be easy.

“People are pretty hung up on the idea that this is a $5.2-billion of Calgary taxpayer money. They are grabbing onto it pretending like that’s the real number,” Mr. Carter said. He also points to the province’s struggling economy as a factor. “I think it’s because people are really angry right now. They don’t see this as a way out of our [economic] situation. They see this as further worsening of our situation.”

But there are outside experts who believe Calgary could indeed host an Olympics for less than what Vancouver paid. Robert VanWynsberghe, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who did a post-2010 study for the Canadian Olympic Committee, agreed with Mr. Furlong’s view.

“It really depends whether infrastructure costs for certain things - like a high-speed transportation link to the airport or an arena – are attributed to the Games, or seen as good timing,” Mr. VanWynsberghe wrote in an e-mail.

Dan Mason, the University of Alberta professor who consulted for the City of Edmonton during its downtown arena project, noted every Olympics “has its own unique budget. … Some costs, like security, can change dramatically. If something happens in a broader geopolitical context, such as a terrorist attack, it would change these costs significantly.”

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Changing costs are as much an Olympic staple as pin trading. Mr. Gauld insisted that every Olympics “since the 1960s has been more than 130 per cent over budget.”

During that time frame, the Games have seen the excess of its ways: Los Angeles posted a surplus of US$200-million in 1984 with a strong corporate approach; Sochi spent a record US$51-billion on the 2014 Winter Olympics; and after 40 years Montreal finally cleared its 1976 Olympic debt, which had grown to $1.6-billion, 13 times the original estimate.

Calgary 2026 has listed $900-million as the cost of renovating its existing Olympic facilities [excluding the ski jump, since the event would be held in Whistler, B.C.] and building a new field house and 5,000-seat community arena specifically for the Games. That has led some people to think the small arena is a bargaining chip to be played in negotiations for a larger one to replace the Scotiabank Saddledome.

“You know someone is eventually going to ask, ‘What are we building a 5,000-seat arena for. We might as well build a whole new arena,’” Mr. Gauld said.

The Calgary Flames walked away from arena talks last September saying they were frustrated with the process. Talks have since renewed in a quiet, back-room fashion.

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