The recent flurry of administration flubs and related stories around Calgary’s potential 2026 Olympic bid only serve to cloud the real issues and elevate public confusion.
If we’re going to commit to hosting the Winter Games in eight years, we owe it to ourselves to do real due diligence – and to embrace common sense in the process. That means we need to do two things: establish a business-focused bid committee and poll Calgary taxpayers on what they really want.
First, let’s get clear on the economics. The bill for hosting could be around $4.5 billion. Out of that, we can expect to gain ‘significant spinoff benefits’ (unquantified as to who benefits and how much) and some $2 billion in civic infrastructure (but not a C-train line to the airport?).
Special purpose facilities rarely generate significant long-term economic spinoff. More general use infrastructure assets (like a new field house, stadium, world class art gallery or upgraded hockey arena) certainly do. For years, this city council has been unable to justify spending several hundred million dollars on any one of those big-ticket facilities. Yet now our city administration can justify billions for a two-week Olympic party with no solid evidence of fundamental fiscal return?
Something’s not adding up.
Another thing missing in the economic evaluation: co-operation with other communities. Where are Edmonton (which offered) and Red Deer in these conversations? Likewise, why are we not talking with Vancouver to consider ways to use their existing facilities?
While we wonder whether the provincial or federal governments will help with this bid, our leaderless council and fumbling administration are considering a plebiscite based on a likely biased question. I implore council to consider another option.
Let’s quickly poll all residents who are on the city tax rolls. With a bit of effort, we could also include Enmax customers to broaden the reach. Let’s immediately send out polling forms through the reliable postal service. That’s easy and cheap – and we all know it. Let’s ask taxpayers to respond on a sliding scale – rather than a simple (and likely misleading) yes or no.
Let’s ask people how much of a loss they would be comfortable taking. Let’s ask how they think we should fund any shortfall (increase taxes, cost of services, add debt?). Let’s dig deep into what kind of community infrastructure Calgarians actually want (stadium, airport C-Train, new convention centre, arena – yup, snuck that in!).
We could even put the fluoride question back on the table.
Finally, let’s get real on the question of who should be guiding the process. If council wanted to establish trust and credibility with taxpayers, it should have started by ensuring the bid committee had a stronger representation of business leaders capable of assessing the business value of the Games. It worked very well for Calgary ’88. With all due respect, Olympic athletes and former police chiefs are just not sufficient to the task.
If we’re going to strike a bid committee, let the major criterion for selection be business and management expertise – regardless of political stripes. If those business and community leaders happen to come from diverse backgrounds, great. Otherwise, let’s park the quotas for ‘community representatives’ at the door.
I passionately support hosting 2026, but only on terms that are economic to Calgary. It’s possible that hosting the 2026 Olympic Winter Games could be a great boost for Calgary. It’s also possible we could be paying them off for the next 30 years.
Too many questions need to be answered before we can say yes or no to this Olympic bid. A little common sense would go a long way in making the choice clear – and the future of our city more secure.
Let’s stop and reload – the artificial deadline of the IOC is meaningless if the economics don’t work. And let’s remember that we may want this event but we don’t need this event.
Poll the people. Be mindful of the economics. It’s not too late.
Brett Wilson is a Calgary entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist.
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