When Calgarians rejected the Olympic bid, they chose bread over circuses

Calgarians wanted to focus on local priorities, particularly with an austerity budget looming, without Olympic-sized risks.

Tuesday's vote wasn't a rejection of the city's future, it was the rejection of one vision of that future

Scott Hutcheson, board chair of the Calgary 2026 bid corporation, centre, listens to Calgary city council debate motions to kill the 2026 Winter Olympic bid and cancel a Nov. 13 plebiscite. That motion failed, but Calgarians rejected the bid. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

When Roman emperors needed to appease the crowds, they threw lavish games to entertain and distract the masses. They would toss out extra loaves of bread to seal the deal. On Tuesday, Calgarians were asked what they thought of hosting a spectacle  — and chose to bake their own bread.

The debate leading up to Tuesday's plebiscite might have been less bloody than Roman games of old — at least physically — but the aim was essentially the same.

The boosters — the mayor, the business community — they all pointed to the spectacle of hosting the 2026 Winter Games and the billions in unleashed funding as not only an economic boost, but a spiritual one as well.

Both the bid corporation and the lobby group Yes Calgary 2026 spent lavishly to drive the message home. Ads peppered the airwaves, stars from the '88 Games, including Eddie the Eagle, soared into town, there were even last-minute robocalls featuring Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

But it wasn't enough.

Calgarians wanted to focus on local priorities, particularly with an austerity municipal budget scheduled for debate the next day.

Some might have been cranky with stalled pipelines, the NDP government, Nenshi or the federal Liberals.

Unemployment runs high and over 25 per cent of the office space in Calgary's downtown towers sit empty.

"It looks to me like Calgarians put their head before their hearts on this decision," is how Matti Siemiatycki from the Munk School of Business in Toronto put it.

He studies infrastructure mega-projects and funding models and said those projects often go over budget.

"I think that's what's so interesting about mega-projects is that there's something about the way that mega-projects come about and the way they're conceptualized and sold to their sponsors, whether in the private sector or the public sector, that endemically leads to underestimated costs and overestimated benefits," he said.

"And we've seen this over and over and over again."

When it comes to the Olympics, cost overruns are a recurring event. One recent study out of Oxford showed every single Games since 1968 has come in over budget, often costing more than twice as much as expected.

Counter-intuitively, it might have been a lack of promises that helped sink the Calgary vote.

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said it's a distinct possibility.

"I think you could make a counter argument that one of the problems is there weren't enough legacy items after 2026," he said.

A new NHL arena to replace the aging Saddledome he thinks could have sealed the deal.

The pitch

If the vision for Calgary's bid could be summed up in one word, it would be: frugal.

It's not the kind of thing you hang from banners or use to fire up emotions. Calgary's bid had the feel of a cocktail party at the local Value Village that had to be wrapped up by 10 p.m.

But it would still cost $3 billion in public funds.

There would be improvements to existing facilities like McMahon Stadium and the Saddledome and a couple of new ones — a fieldhouse and mid-sized arena — but sometimes you need a new gown.

There was hype when it came to the economic benefits of hosting, but the bid corporation, Calgary 2026, couldn't present a clear vision of its accounting.

City councillors tripped over the numbers and economist Trevor Tombe called some of the claims "demonstrably" wrong.

There were more doubts than facts, more confusion than clarity. A last-minute funding deal provided no comfort  — not even for Coun. Evan Woolley, who chaired the Olympic Assessment Committee and then decided to flee from the sinking ship. The good deal, he said, wasn't there.

The lack of a vision for what the Games would be and what they would mean for Calgary long-term was a fatal flaw, according to Brent Toderian.

This rendering shows what Calgary 2026 thought McMahon Stadium could look like for the Olympics. (Calgary 2026)

He was at the helm of Vancouver's planning department during the 2010 Games and has advised Olympic and would-be Olympic cities on the pros and cons of hosting.

Toderian said the reason to host the Olympics and to invest all that money has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with leveraging the money for great city-building initiatives that benefit citizens long-term.

"What I actually say to cities contemplating bids … they need to come at that consideration from a position of confidence and clarity around their vision, their aspirations as a city, not from a position of desperation," he said.

"It's the cities that are desperate to make something happen that are at great risk of bankrupting themselves."

Frugality might not have been the best vision, and a lack of clarity was endemic, but it's not as though Calgary is without ambitions, dreams and wishlists.

City building

There are plenty of lofty words in planning documents and plans that, at least theoretically, guide decisions at city hall. Imagine Calgary, the Centre City Plan, the Complete Streets Guide among them. They are blueprints for a how a bigger, denser, multi-modal city could work.

They paint a picture of what the city could and should be.

There are also tangible examples of a place that has moved beyond the concept of four walls and a roof to embrace standout buildings that pump up civic pride. Some are private, some public — the new Central Library, the National Music Centre, Telus Sky, The Bow, the Peace Bridge.

A view inside Calgary's new central library, which opened almost two weeks before the Olympic plebiscite. (Dave Rae/CBC)

There are bikes lanes and ring roads and the Green Line and the River Walk. There's the East Village, and the dreams of an entertainment district hugging the Stampede grounds in East Victoria Park.

Coun. Druh Farrell, an outspoken critic of the Games since Day One, repeatedly pointed to other needs, including Calgary's struggling art sector, and wondered why we'd buy into the Olympics.

The city's chief financial officer warned there was only so much money to go around.

That's not to say there aren't always problems and debates and the vicious politicking that comes with a city of a certain size. It's just to say there's fodder and a foundation for a different vision of the city.

And in an effort to sell the Games, and sell them quickly to a city facing an austerity budget, Calgary 2026 chose to not include any of the long-lasting city infrastructure that could come with the Olympics.

It didn't build upon existing visions and dreams.

It chose cheap — what it would call responsible — while still racking up a $3 billion public tab.

Members of the No Calgary Olympics campaign celebrate after the result of the plebiscite was announced in Calgary Tuesday evening. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

There was also no unity, no coming together of the different levels of government to celebrate a promising mega-event for not just Calgary, but Alberta and Canada as well.

When Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci announced the province would provide $700 million for the Games, not a penny more, he had the look of someone who had lost a beloved pet. The city's contribution was leaked on a Saturday. Ottawa's initial offer was revealed the same way.

When a final deal was reached, it came through Calgary 2026 in a late night news release the day before council was to vote on killing the bid.

"For an infrastructure project of this size involving multiple orders of government, why weren't they all on the stage at the same time?" said Bratt.

The people saw pain, and risks, with little gain. There was no combination of Calgary's shrewd reputed fiscal management combined with something more. There was no energy.

So what? Where now?

The future

In the wake of Tuesday's vote, some of its biggest supporters were angry. George Brookman, a bonafide civic booster and flag-waving Yes man, called the No side "losers" and wondered where their vision for the future was.

It was a common refrain on social media. A suggestion that if you're opposed to the Olympics, provide another vision for the city or get out of the way.

But there was also a sense that the debate — albeit too polarized, too often — is the start of a bigger discussion about this place and where we're going. It focused minds and set priorities in thousands of disparate brains in all corners of the city.

Even in the course of it, there were ideas about where else to spend and why. The arts, transit, tax relief.

Kate Jacobson is with Better Spent 2026, a group that wanted to talk about exactly that — where and why we should spend Olympic-size budgets elsewhere.

"Our take on it was really that it's great when the government spends money, but only when it spends money on public programs and services that actually improve the lives of Calgarians," she said.

Snow-clearing, food bank funding, social housing

"There's things like fully electrified public transit, public snow-clearing services, food bank funding, social housing, expanded cycle-track infrastructure. There are so many projects that are unfulfilled in Calgary that would be such a better use of this money than throwing a mega event in eight years for the International Olympic Committee."

Jacobson calls budgets "moral documents" that reveal what a government really cares about. Look at the numbers, look where the money goes and you find the heart and soul of a place.

And with Calgary debating an austerity budget that envisions $100 million in cuts, one day after the plebiscite, she thinks it's a perfect time to have those hard number conversations that show more than just dollars and cents.

A flame is lit atop the Calgary Tower at 8:26 p.m. (20:26), days before a Nov. 13 plebiscite vote ended Calgary's Olympic bid. Now, the city will have to look ahead to other visions for its future. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"When I'm saying I want money to be going toward public transit, toward our public school system, toward social housing, I'm making a moral claim and a value claim that people can disagree with or agree with. I think it's a fairly honest way to show people what you value and have a conversation about politics."

It's a conversation that started at 1 p.m. the day after the vote that will determine if a new entertainment district rises in East Victoria Park, if Calgary finally gets a fieldhouse without an Olympics, if taxes rise or task forces form to help fill empty office towers. If, if, if, if.

Calgarians didn't reject Calgary on Tuesday, they just rejected one vision of its future. Now it's time to bake the loaf.


    Drew Anderson

    Former CBC digital journalist

    Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.


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