Looking back on them a generation later, Calgary’s 1988 Olympics were a remarkable success.
They were Canada’s eighth attempt at securing a Winter Games, with all the pent-up desire that suggests. They were widely popular before, during and after their run.
They left the city with a legacy as a world capital of winter sport. And the budgeting was airtight (by Olympic standards) – a mere 65-per-cent cost overrun of initial estimates.
There were no major scandals. The nation was brought together. Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team did the global marketing for free. It was about as successful a party as can be thrown.
And though it would probably be more easily done the second time around, Calgary has taken a vote and decided that that is not something they are interested in trying again. The final tally of Tuesday’s plebiscite wasn’t close – 56 per cent against to 44 per cent for.
The two-year-plus effort divided the populace, coarsened their local politics and cost several million non-recoupable dollars, but a plurality of Calgarians appear to think that’s getting off cheap.
The International Olympic Committee and the rest of the world ought to mark this down for future reference – if Calgary is taking a pass, then the rest of us are out as well.
After this organizational disaster, no local Canadian politician is going to be stupid enough to wave the Olympic flag in public. The core message the issue projects has flipped from “I want the whole world to know how great this city is” to “I want to steal all your money.”
We’ll still be happy to show up every two years and pal around with the rest of you, but when it comes to the money and responsibility end of things, Canada is now out of the Olympics business.
In some inevitable Canadian way, this feels like a failure. Like we got something wrong here. But this was never about Calgary, Ottawa or the institutions that do the actual work of hosting an Olympic Games.
This was a vote on the Olympics as an idea and on the cabal that runs it.
Shortly after the effort began, one of the people fronting the bid, former Calgary police chief Rick Hanson, noted the primary hurdle: “People have become really cynical – about the Olympics, especially.”
When you think of the Olympics these days, sport is not front of mind. Instead, you get a vision of some sort of press conference where someone is announcing something or other, usually something awful.
“The bills have come due, and Host X can’t pay them.”
“So-and-so has tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the eighth time, and now we have to seriously discuss thinking about a draft resolution proposing to punish them.”
“Yes, it’s true that we built a road to nowhere that would have cost less were it paved in actual gold, but the good news is that, since no one uses it, it will last forever."
Sochi 2014 was the point at which most people got off the “Olympics are great no matter what the price” bandwagon. The costs were staggering, the results underwhelming, the whole thing suffused in early 21st-century gloom and, as a bonus, the fix was in the whole time.
The talking heads of the International Olympic Committee got up on a podium every morning to tell you about how great it was all going (“No black widow bombers as yet”). Every evening you went back to your kajillion-dollar prefab barracks – which even in the midst of the event were collapsing into the ground – and thought, “I’m the wrong reporter for this gig. They should have sent Franz Kafka.”
Sensible people (so, the ones who don’t run autocracies) couldn’t help but notice.
They had heard the astounding figures – that Beijing spent around US$100-million on its opening ceremonies alone and London felt compelled to match them. That’s about as much as the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics cost in total.
They were reminded that not one single Games in history had come in on budget – and most weren’t anywhere close.
They saw the way the thing tended to fall to intergovernmental fighting years before the start, and that a wagon train of boondoggles trailed behind it.
They noted that other citizens in cities very like their own were pushing back hard on the Olympic dream. That sort of socioeconomic panic is contagious.
Mostly, they decided that while the Olympics are fun to participate in and fun to watch, they are not fun in any other way.
If Calgary, Alberta, Canada – with all of its advantages, its existing infrastructure, its history, its know-how, its love of having guests pop over for a visit and the backing of a federal government that can well afford such things – doesn’t see the worth in the Olympics any more, the IOC must ask itself what worth remains.
They won’t, of course. The time when these issues could be considered without prompting a cascading, existential crisis is past.
Instead, they will shuffle over to the two remaining 2026 bids – Milan and Stockholm – and hold out their gigantic hat.
Vancouver beat seven other cities for the right to hold the 2010 Games. A couple of words in that sentence don’t make sense any more.
You don’t “beat” someone to an Olympic Games these days. The IOC asks volunteers to step forward, and you end up the one who neglected to take a step back. Hosting an Olympics is no longer a right, but instead a duty.
The lesson to be drawn from Calgary’s decision hasn’t anything to do with organizing, messaging or cost analyses. It’s more elemental than that.
It’s that, in future, all cities will have to ask themselves: if Calgary won’t, then why on Earth would we?