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A potential 2026 Olympic bid raises complicated questions for Calgary

Thousands of balloons are released during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Calgary's McMahon Stadium on Feb. 13, 1988.

Thousands of balloons are released during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Calgary’s McMahon Stadium on Feb. 13, 1988.

PHIL WALKER/The Canadian Press

Going for gold – again

1988 Olympic host city Calgary is considering a bid for 2026 – without breaking its recession-troubled bank, David Ebner reports

Three years ago, a small group of Calgarians considered a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

They didn't have much time and the list of interested cities was crowded. The Calgarians didn't push forward. Other bidders then turned away. Oslo, seen as a favourite, dropped out, as potential costs cut into public support. In the end, there were only two contenders, the fewest for an Olympics in more than three decades. Beijing won, narrowly defeating Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The episode jarred the imperious International Olympic Committee and added urgency to its nascent reforms, dubbed Olympic Agenda 2020. The key changes aimed at costs: making the Olympics less expensive to bid for and to stage.

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In Calgary, the Olympic spirit was renewed – and the plan to consider a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics went public in June. It has the enthusiastic support of the mayor and city council but also attracted criticism, from questions about the IOC – called "deeply corrupt" by one dissenting city councillor – to the value of hosting the Olympics. The last Winter Olympics in Russia cost a fortune and this month's Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have been beset by problems.

Calgary believes it can set a new standard. The city – mired in a deep recession – sees a second Olympics as the road to new infrastructure: transit, housing, and sports facilities. But organizers believe Calgary can do it on a budget and be a city that helps reshape the Olympics, to put on the big show at a reasonable cost. Calgary has done it well before, in 1988, and is ready to take a lesson from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which generated a golden glow and didn't leave behind piles of debt.

READ MORE: Calgary confirms it's exploring potential bid for 2026 Winter Olympic Games

"Not that we're magicians but we're hoping that if we're successful, we set the trend of what Olympic bids should be in the future," said Doug Mitchell, chairman of the Calgary Sport Tourism Authority, which has pursued the Olympics so far.

"And we're hoping we can get people across the country enthusiastic about the bid, and what it can do for Canada."

Calgary has roughly a year to decide whether to proceed with a 2026 bid. The IOC will choose a winner in July, 2019. Rivals could include Switzerland, where five cities are vying to be the Swiss candidate.

Robyn Perry. XV Olympic Winter Games in Calgary 1988. Ken Reid and Cathy Priestner pass the Olympic Torch to Robyn Perry for the final leg of the torch run at McMahon Stadium. Credit: City of Calgary Archives

Robyn Perry. XV Olympic Winter Games in Calgary 1988. Ken Reid and Cathy Priestner pass the Olympic Torch to Robyn Perry for the final leg of the torch run at McMahon Stadium. Credit: City of Calgary Archives

Mr. Mitchell, a 77-year-old lawyer, founded the Sport Tourism Authority, where the majority of the 10-person volunteer board is corporate or in tourism. Mr. Mitchell has a long history in sports, philanthropy, and civic leadership. Lois Mitchell, his wife, is Alberta's Lieutenant-Governor. Mr. Mitchell grew up near downtown Calgary and, in his late 30s, he led the renewal of Canada's national hockey program, after Canada hadn't sent teams to the Winter Olympics in the 1970s. It helped set the foundation of Calgary's sports economy. Mr. Mitchell then contributed to the 1988 games.

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The 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics went over budget but were widely declared a success. The new sports facilities solidified Calgary as a sports city, home to national sports organizations, athletes, and others such as coaches and doctors.

But the Calgary 2026 sales pitch isn't about conjuring an old flame. In 2026, the average Calgarian will not have even been born in 1988.

The idea is what Calgary can become. Yet the Olympics, even if tempered costs materialize, are expensive.

RELATED: Troubled COC turns to John Furlong to punch up next Olympic bid

A projection of $5.3-billion was floated in the Sport Tourism Authority's presentation to Calgary city council in late June. The number is a ballpark figure, given the early stage, and was based on a consultant's report that looked at costs for Vancouver 2010 and projected into the future.

Step 1 is modest: Council voted to spend $5-million to study a potential bid. An actual bid could cost upwards of $50-million.

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If Calgary 2026 becomes a reality, the $5.3-billion figure would require a large public investment, as was the case in Vancouver, where the federal and B.C. provincial governments were essential contributors.

Such large investments are where critics take aim.

A study entitled Going for the Gold: The Economics of the Olympics, published earlier this year in the prominent Journal of Economic Perspectives, noted the Olympic benefits of new infrastructure and the "feel-good effect," but its primary point was clear: "The overwhelming conclusion is that in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition."

The pitch to Calgary city council, however, highlighted the wins that the Vancouver region scored, from the new Canada Line transit system to the improved Sea to Sky Highway route to Whistler. The pitch also promoted the opportunity for affordable housing as a long-term use of an Olympics athletes village.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has talked about a light-rail extension to the airport that might not otherwise be built.

IN PHOTOS: Instant messages from Canada's Olympic athletes

Hosting the Olympics "has traditionally brought significant provincial and federal investment to the host city," said the Calgary Sport Tourism Authority report to city council.

The biggest question is a new arena.

In Vancouver, Rogers Arena was a central venue, 15 years old in 2010, and built with private money. Having it ready was a big savings. Calgary's Saddledome, next year, will be the oldest in the National Hockey League. By 2026, it will be nearly a half-century old.

Debate about whether to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics comes as the city also considers whether to replace its iconic Saddledome arena.

Debate about whether to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics comes as the city also considers whether to replace its iconic Saddledome arena.

Chris Bolin/for The Globe and Mail

A new arena is a controversial. Calgary Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the Calgary Flames and Calgary Stampeders and led by oil billionaire Murray Edwards, has proposed a new facility, "CalgaryNEXT." It would combine a hockey arena and a fieldhouse on the west edge of downtown and costs to build it would be split between the city and the company.

The city is now considering a new arena near the Saddledome, on the east side of downtown. The Saddledome was built with public funds in the early 1980s, in part to win the Olympics.

The connection between the Olympics and a new arena isn't official – but they are related. Ken King, for instance, is CEO of Calgary Sports and Entertainment, and sits on the Sport Tourism board. Mr. King has said it's a "very happy coincidence" the arena question and Olympics bid have emerged together. Mr. Nenshi, a skeptic of CalgaryNEXT, called it a "fortuitous coincidence."

RELATED: The Globe's full coverage of Rio 2016

"A new event centre is important to the city of Calgary – with or without the Olympics," said John Bean, chief operating officer of Calgary Sports and Entertainment.

Calgary has some older facilities that could moderate costs. The speed-skating oval, the sliding track at Canada Olympic Park and Nakiska, host of the 1988 alpine events, would together require significant money to upgrade – but less than building from scratch.

"Calgary can be an example again of an exciting, vibrant Olympics that don't cost a fortune," said Ken Read, a consultant and former Olympian who hasn't been involved in the potential bid.

Supporters celebrate in July, 2003, following the announcement that Vancouver had won its 2010 Winter Olympic bid.

Supporters celebrate in July, 2003, following the announcement that Vancouver had won its 2010 Winter Olympic bid.

Richard Lam/Canadian Press

The lessons of Vancouver 2010 will be easy to tap. John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympics, is running a group for the Canadian Olympic Committee that will help Calgary.

The goal, if Calgary proceeds, is a bid that "has a very good chance to win," he said.

Keeping costs contained was key in Vancouver, Mr. Furlong said. The organizers were battered by the global financial crisis in the 18 months before the Olympics but didn't suffer a glaring deficit.

"We would have never been forgiven," Mr. Furlong said.

An important strategy was a smart approach to venues. The Olympic Oval became a community centre in Richmond. The curling venue in Vancouver was part of the new Hillcrest Centre. Pacific Coliseum, 42 years old in 2010, was used for figure skating and short-track speed skating.

For 2026, new ideas might work – such as bringing Edmonton, three hours north, on board.

"The potential in Alberta for a different kind of project is definitely there," Mr. Furlong said.

The evolution of the Olympics could be unfolding for the 2024 Summer Games, for which Los Angeles and Paris are leading bidders.

In L.A., in one example, the downtown convention centre would host events such as boxing and fencing. Organizers claim strong local support and call their plan "a new games for a new era." In a promotional video, filled with famous L.A. denizens, former NBA star Kobe Bryant declares, "In 2024, we'll be rolling."

The IOC will decide the host city for the 2024 Summer Games in September, 2017.

Canada Olympic Park Torchbearer and Winsport employee Stuart McDonough carries the Olympic flame up the ski lift at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary in the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Canada Olympic Park Torchbearer and Winsport employee Stuart McDonough carries the Olympic flame up the ski lift at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary in the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

In Calgary, the No. 1 fan may be Mr. Nenshi. The 44-year-old mayor has fond memories of the 1988 Olympics, when he had just turned 16. He attended the London Games in 2012 as a fan.

Mr. Nenshi warned that Calgary would move carefully and would only consider hosting if costs were contained. But he was effusive, too.

"I'm very, very excited," he told reporters. On local radio, he declared: "I do love the Olympics."

Dominique Clement, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, has studied security at the Olympics and said the total bill is too much.

"The Olympics are not a business venture," Prof. Clement said. "It's like buying a sports car. It's fun but it's not something that should be at the top of the priorities."

Trevor Tombe, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, warned that forecasts are often overstated. Mega-events such as Olympics, he said, bolster sectors such as construction but at the same time draw workers away from other projects.

Calgary 2026 forecasts creating or supporting 40,000 jobs.

"Such estimates are more than wrong," Mr. Tombe said. "They're embarrassing."

It rests with Doug Mitchell's team to sell Calgarians and governments on 2026. The group to explore a bid is being assembled. Colleagues are encouraging Mr. Mitchell to lead it.

"We know there will be issues," Mr. Mitchell said. "We're trying to make it so all-encompassing, and the legacy so great, that the majority of people will get on board."

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