Scaled back Calgary 2026 Olympics security plan predicted to go over budget

Calgary's 2026 Olympic security plan has already faced a budget cut, and experts say the proposal is unrealistic and predict costs could double to $1 billion.

Proposed $495M budget is being questioned since average security cost is $1.3B

Olympic athletes arrive at Vancouver International Airport in 2010. The security budget for the Vancouver games reached just under $1 billion, five times the original estimate. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Volunteers, private-sector security guards, virtual fences and tethered drones could form part of Calgary's $495-million security plan for the 2026 Olympics. 

It's a plan that's been criticized for its low-budget estimate compared with previous Games, which have spent at least $1 billion on security.

The bid corporation, which describes security "as the most significant essential service related to the Games," originally planned to spend $610 million on security. But the budget was cut last week to $495 million following discussions with the RCMP, the Calgary Police Service and the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.

While half a billion dollars is a lot of money, critics say the budget is unrealistic and cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars should be expected.

"The Games are always characterized by a significant cost overrun and security is no different," said Michael Heine, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in London, Ont. 

The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee stated in its report — a de-facto precursor to Calgary 2026's draft hosting plan — that the average cost of security "at recent Games" was $1.3 billion, which is nearly three times Calgary's proposed security budget.

"What they [various police agencies] have assured us is they're going to deliver a safe and secure Games and that they will manage the cost and any further potential savings that we have," said Mary Moran, the CEO of the bid corporation.

'Pragmatic and fiscally prudent' plan

The committee report proposed "a pragmatic and fiscally prudent security framework" based on a philosophy of "active risk management as opposed to high consequence aversion" — a philosophy endorsed by the bid corporation.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on security personnel — costs that would likely include transportation, accommodation and overtime for hundreds of police officers from across the country — the plan is to "reduce the risk to as low as reasonably practical," according to the committee report. 

It suggests one of the ways to do that is to hire fewer security personnel and fewer police officers.

"Instead of staffing every position with police officers, consider other options," said the report.

That would include more volunteers, private security guards and peace officers.

"Rather than spending in an attempt to eliminate risk, this reality requires critical thinking, a step back, and an acceptance there will be ongoing risk to manage," stated the report.

The Calgary 2026 draft hosting plan recently cut approximately $115 million from its security budget to $495 million. Critics predict the cost could double to $1 billion. (David Bell/CBC)

The committee report said that instead of relying exclusively on security personnel, the 2026 Games should incorporate advances in security hardware and software technology "to support the human security element."

The report suggested the following ideas:

  • CCTV analytics and an integrated video management system.
  • Perimeter intrusion detection, virtual fences and unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • More effective and efficient screening tools for people and vehicles.

"Unbridled security planners can easily identify measures they believe should be put in place, but at some point, the cost of these measures becomes significantly disproportionate to the risks they mitigate," the report said.

Heine said that because security costs are typically provided by federal and or provincial agencies, local Olympic bid organizers are usually "a bit more relaxed" with their security budget projections. 

"The number ($495 million) seems really low to me," said Heine.

"These are usually, typically, billion-dollar considerations to provide security, plus cyber-security, which is a new key arena for this debate," he said.

Heine is also uncomfortable with the suggestion that more volunteers and private security guards be used during the Games.

"That seems very implausible to me," he said.

The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee report highlighted three key risks that could threaten the proposed security budget:

  • Threat environment changing over the next eight years.
  • Venues changing or being added.
  • Federal government assigning a lead security agency that does not embrace the proposed security philosophy.

It's unclear whether the RCMP fully endorses the ideas laid out in the committee report or the Calgary 2026 draft hosting plan.

"We are focused on following the philosophy and guidance of the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies," said James Millar, a spokesperson for the bid corporation.

"It is their plan — they are driving this as it is their responsibility," he said in an email.

Millar said the bid corporation anticipates the federal government will sign the security guarantee later this year, which would also cover any security cost overruns.

"The guarantee includes lead authority for security, ensuring a safe and peaceful Games, and how financial costs will be managed (potential savings/overruns)," Millar said.

Mixed messages on covering overruns

While the bid corporation said the federal government will guarantee security costs — and any overruns — the minister of sport has been sending mixed messages.

Last week, Kirsty Duncan told reporters there's no money for overages.

"Within our federal hosting policy, we are not responsible for cost overruns," Duncan said Friday.

On Tuesday, the minister provided a much different response when asked about security cost overruns.

"The federal government will provide the guarantees for the Olympics and Paralympics Games, we will provide all the guarantees," said Duncan.

The minister's office sent a statement to CBC News late Tuesday:

"The RCMP, Calgary police and other security agencies have approved a security plan with a cost of $495 million. We have strong oversight measures in place and the bid proposal contains a significant amount of contingency funding. We will always ensure the security of the Games."

The chair of the city's Olympic bid assessment committee still isn't convinced as to who will cover any blown budgets.

"I think there's significant uncertainty there," said Evan Woolley.

"We are hearing mixed messages from the federal government in different departments, I think it's incumbent upon them to clarify that from their own words," he said. 

Woolley said it's been frustrating to hear different things from the bid corporation and the federal government and is calling on Ottawa to clarify it as Calgarians continue to vote on whether they want the Games.

Vancouver security costs 5x original estimate

Vancouver 2010's final security bill came in at just under $1 billion — five times the original estimate.

Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan originally said the federal government is not responsible for cost overruns. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A senior government official said the Vancouver costs can't be compared to Calgary's because of "geographic and situational" differences between the two cities. The official also said the use of technology during the screening of visitors at various venues will reduce costs.

"There is nothing that is more important to us than the security of Canadians, than the security of Calgarians, and we're assured this plan will give us both of those," the official said in a briefing with reporters last week. 

'You'll have to have good luck'

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, doubts Calgary's security plan can stay on budget. He said those costs typically run between two to four times the amount Calgary is proposing.

"The security bill at all of the Olympics since 9/11, so since 2000, have been in the $1-2 billion range," he said.

"You'd have to have good luck, if there aren't any terrorist incidents planned and there aren't any violent acts planned ... you might get away with it," said Zimbalist. 

He said Olympics hosts are required to assume there is a certain level of risk at the Olympics and to take all the necessary precautions to protect residents, visitors, athletes and IOC executives. 

"It's probably possible to spend $300 million but does that give you the level of protection that you need?" said Zimbalist.


LIVE EVENT: CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall

If you live in Calgary, find out what you need to know before you cast your vote in the Nov. 13 plebiscite by tuning in to the CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall.

Featuring a knowledgeable panel and hosted by the Calgary Eyeopener's David Gray, we will hear from both sides and take questions from the audience. Panellists include:

  • Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
  • Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran.
  • Coun. Evan Woolley, chair of city council's Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games assessment committee.
  • Economist with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, Trevor Tombe.
  • No Calgary Olympics organizer Jeanne Milne.
  • David Finch, associate professor at Mount Royal University's Bissett School of Business.

It'll take place at Calgary's new Central Library (800 3rd St. S.E.) on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Doors open at 6 p.m., with rush seating available at 6:15 p.m. All of the reserved tickets have been claimed.

Didn't get a ticket? Never fear, you can tune in by:

  • Joining our Facebook Live at facebook.com/cbccalgary, where you can ask questions and post comments.
  • Watching the Facebook Live in a story on our CBC Calgary website.
  • Listening in on CBC Radio One (99.1 FM or 1010 AM in Calgary), at cbc.ca/calgary or your CBC Radio App from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. MT.


About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.