Why I’m voting No to Calgary’s 2026 Olympic bid

Canada Olympic Park (photo by Alex Hamilton)

Calgary city council may have kept the 2026 Olympic bid on life support, but Calgarians should still pull the plug tonight.

The rollercoaster journey of the bid the last week of October was a reminder of how much planners have failed to sell the (conservatively) $5.8 billion megaproject. Messaging has included nostalgia-tinged optimism, a belated engagement process, and hazy economic promises that neglect to mention the opportunity costs.

The city’s bid corporation, BidCo, produced at the 11th hour an improbable proposal to slash the bid budget by $125 million (while also adding a $200 million insurance policy).

At the same time as they claimed it would bring in $4 billion in outside money, BidCo projected a lower security cost than the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, despite security being the one cost most likely to balloon. A 2016 study found that every Olympics since 1960 has had an average cost overrun of 156 per cent.

BidCo is simply doing their job. The real problem is that the entire Olympic process, embodied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has a canyon-sized credibility gap, far too large to be bridged by inspirational videos and nebulous economic promises.

Despite the IOC supposedly working to ease the burden on host cities, the three remaining 2026 bids are all on shaky ground. The city would likely be responsible for the inevitable cost overruns; the bid contract guarantees it won’t be the IOC on the hook.

Billions in tax dollars would be gambled on getting a good deal simply by being the last city standing, and on bucking the trends that make more and more cities cool to the Games.

The bid nearly died in council because of a lack of agreement between governments on funding, but No Calgary Olympics co-founder Erin Waite points out that no matter how they slice the pie, it is all taxpayer money.

Opportunity costs are the biggest costs

This commitment takes crucial time and money away from policies that can directly help Calgarians and Canadians for decades, not for a three-week event eight years from now. Boosters have touted affordable housing and public transit improvements as benefits of the Games, but these should happen anyway, and would likely lose priority attached to a sports-oriented megaproject. Already, BidCo has cut $45 million from its housing plan.

The opportunity cost is starkly illustrated by the fact the City of Calgary’s budget will not be released until the day after the plebiscite.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to foresee the shape of Alberta’s murkier-than-ever, oil-based economy eight years from now; it is entirely predictable, based on the IOC’s history, that Calgary would be worse off in the long run.

Economists, such as the University of Calgary’s Trevor Tombe, have extensively documented how public subsidies of Olympic bids and sports arenas rest on highly questionable math.

Calgary doesn’t need this project to prove their “spirit”

Much like 1988, the 2026 Olympics is sold as a “legacy” project. Waite says that sending the IOC a message could serve as a legacy in and of itself.

There has to be a way of supporting our country’s world-class athletes without spending billions on shaky, short-term projects; the poisoning of the Olympic process is admittedly deeply unfair to these elite, inspirational athletes who reap little of the financial rewards.

Waite says that if Calgary votes “no”, it might help the IOC “[recover] their Olympic spirit” and “finish those reforms they’ve talked about but haven’t done.”

With a technical majority in favour of cancelling the plebiscite, city council clearly soured on this project, though not enough to deny Calgarians their promised democratic right to decide.

Waite worries that with the heightened political drama, “people are getting tired” of the whole process, and she is concerned that may manifest in low turnout for the plebiscite.

Let’s make council’s feelings official and vote “No” tonight.

A version of this post was published online at The Weal on Nov. 13, 2018.