Tears, cheers as Calgary says no to 2026 Olympics
Cheers, tears, and some anger greeted the rejection Nov. 13 of Calgary’s proposed bid to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games.
While opponents of the bid celebrated the 56.4-per-cent majority that came in against the plan in a city plebiscite, some supporters wept at the news, while others blamed failures by senior governments and misleading reporting by some in the news media.
The plebiscite, which drew about 40 per cent of Calgarians to the polls, will now result in the shutdown of the Olympic bid process by city council, Mayor Naheed Nenshi told reporters after the votes were in.
“The people have spoken clearly,” said the mayor, adding that as a supporter of the bid, he was disappointed with the outcome.
Mary Moran, the chief executive officer of the group organizing the bid, admitted in an emailed statement that a lack of unified and timely financial support by the federal and provincial governments hurt the yes campaign.
“We did the best we could with what we were dealt,” said Moran.
At the no side headquarters in Hillhurst-Sunnyside, the leaders of the victorious grassroots campaign No Calgary Olympics said the timing of the bid had been a big concern for voters.
“I think that just going for the Olympics for Calgary was a bit tone-deaf,” said Jeanne Milne.
“There were certain questions and concerns about the bid, but it was actually if this was the right project at the right time, and we were hearing that over and over again.”
Daniel Gauld said that Calgarians “looked at the [Olympic] plan and decided that there’s something else the city could do.
“I think Calgarians were concerned about unemployment, about the vacancy rates downtown, and they weren’t entirely sure the Olympics were going to be the solution,” said Gauld.
“A lot of people just didn’t buy the numbers,” said Franco Terrazanno, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, a lobby group which also opposed the bid.
“I don’t think Calgarians wanted to send a blank cheque to the [International Olympic Committee.]”
Milne said that No Calgary Olympics’ budget was just $1,400 in the final stretch, compared to BidCo’s $1.4-million push that included polished television and newspaper ads, and automated calls to voters in the run-up to voting day.
No Calgary Olympics concentrated their efforts on the advance vote, “before the advertising hit,” according to Milne.
One supporter of the no side suggested their financial disadvantage may have actually helped them.
William McBeath, spokesman for City Hall watchdog group Save Calgary, said that the Yes groups “painted in people’s minds this picture of big spending, big government, using their tax dollars to campaign against the upstart, grassroots no campaign.”
“I actually think it engendered a lot of sympathy for [no],” said McBeath.
“The more we talked to Calgarians, the more we realized there were many different reasons why people were voting no,” said Terrazanno.
At the Yes Calgary 2026 voting night headquarters at Vagabond in Victoria Park, the result was greeted with a mix of emotions.
Yes strategist Stephen Carter initially downplayed advance polling showing an overwhelming no vote.
“Angry people voted early,” Carter said, predicting that the votes in favour would come in later in the night.
But those votes never materialized in sufficient numbers, which Carter said would have far-reaching implications.
“We lost a generation of projects,” he said.
“We’re seeing it in the oil-and-gas industry already.
“If you’re a politician, are you going to bring a big idea when you can’t get behind something as big and popular as the Olympics?” Carter added.
“This is much bigger than what we said no to today, because we’re just sitting around waiting for someone to rescue us.”
Carter criticized the media for what he called a misleading $5.2-billion cost projection. But he also said that the federal government’s late commitment to the project did not help.
Yes organizer Jason Ribeiro said the media and politicians “either knowingly or unknowingly [misled] or [reported] inaccurate information on a very complex deal.”
Volunteers with Yes were disappointed more generally in the response of their fellow citizens.
“I don’t feel like this is our Calgary,” said an emotional Jaime Sorenson.
“The Calgary I know is the friendliest, most welcoming place that there is, and the vitriol and how divisive this issue has been, I’ve been shocked for weeks.
“Quite frankly, I’m devastated tonight that people don’t see the advantage in what this can do.”
Sorenson said that since building oil pipelines are “out of our hands,” the Olympic bid would have brought jobs back.
Brenda Rogers, a Yes volunteer and lobbyist for Curling Canada, said she was “very disappointed in the short-sightedness of Calgarians.”
“I think the error was having our politicians involved. If it had been left to private enterprise, this would have been a successful outcome.”
Rogers said “citizens would not trust anything that came out of” city council.
Although the plebiscite was non-binding, the bid is expected to formally end at a Nov. 19 city council meeting.
Provincial and federal funding was contingent on a “yes” vote, and without that, the city can’t go ahead.
Originally published inThe Press, Nov. 16, 2018.