Calgary is fast approaching a decision that will impact our city for the next 30 to 40 years to come. On November 13, Calgarians will vote in a plebiscite on whether we support bidding to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
After the Calgary 2026 team revealed its draft hosting plan in early September, the media and public debate became narrowly focused on the $5.2 billion price tag ($3 billion when revenues are netted out), and questions of affordability and opportunity cost.
As the November 13 vote looms, I would like to see more discussion on the positives of becoming an Olympic host city. I see at least three benefits that should resonate with the business community.
First, there can be little doubt that winning the rights to host the 2026 Games would provide Calgary with a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Interestingly, the bid for the 1988 Games was also an effort to kick-start the economy in the wake of the disastrous national energy program. The bulk of the spending on any Games, which in this case would include over $1 billion from the IOC and about $1.5 billion from the federal government, is spent in the local host region.
Second, building for the Olympics would allow the City of Calgary to use leveraged dollars to refurbish the legacy sport facilities that were built for the 1988 Games, maintaining Calgary’s position as Canada’s winter sports capital. Several Canadian winter sports organizations, including Hockey Canada, Alpine Canada and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton are all headquartered in Calgary, a legacy of 1988. Calgary has hosted any number of international competitions at Canada Olympic Park and the Olympic Oval. Without the Olympics, we will soon be facing difficult decisions as a city regarding whether to decommission these facilities, which remain well used by families and competitive athletes alike.
Third, hosting the Olympics and Paralympics would give Calgary a unique opportunity to define the city we want and to showcase it to the world, attracting talent and innovation in the process. This is the intangible benefit of the Games – Olympics is about much more than sport. Some of Calgary’s best arts infrastructure is a legacy of ’88. Badly needed affordable housing is another important consideration. To quote former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, hosting the Olympics is a launching pad, not a landing pad.
All that said, I have some serious concerns about how Calgary’s Olympic project has been managed to date. Our city council has appeared disorganized, divided and petty at times, not demonstrating the level of leadership, transparency and accountability that Calgary would need to credibly bid and host the Games.
On balance, I support an Olympic bid. Winning the Games and delivering a best-in-class global event will counter a worrying emerging narrative that it has become impossible to build big, ambitious projects in Canada. But I doubt our current city council’s ability to oversee the Olympic project effectively. If we decide to do this as a city, it’s time that Calgary’s business community steps up to ensure it’s done extremely well. If Calgary bids and wins, we should and will set a high bar for clean, inclusive, responsible and disciplined Games planning and operations, delivering not only exceptional Games events, but a new legacy that will define Calgary for decades to come.