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Scared off by Sochi: Why the Olympic money problem could be an opportunity for Calgary

The Olympics has a problem and it's all about money. Host cities are spending billions more than they once did — mostly on security and construction — creating a chilling effect for potential future hosts around the world. But the problem might give an advantage to cities that have hosted in the past.

Former host cities have more ways to keep costs down

Canada's Olympic athletes enjoy the opening ceremonies at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. (Canadian Press)

Originally published August 18.

The Olympics has a problem and it's all about money.

Host cities are spending billions more than they once did — mostly on security and construction — creating a chilling effect for potential future hosts around the world.

Many cities and their higher levels of government simply can't fathom spending so much to host the event.

The same goes for their taxpayers.

Many Brazilians are less than thrilled about the billions their country spent to host the Games in Rio when their economy is devastated by a painful recession.

But the Olympic money problem also presents an opportunity, particularly for cities that have hosted in the past and might like to do so again, and whose existing infrastructure could help control costs. 

Calgary is in that group and is believed to have a good shot at the 2026 Winter Games — should it decide to officially join the race.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi cost $55 billion, dramatically more than any previous Games.

"The size and scope of Sochi scared people," John Furlong, the former CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Games, told CBC News. "You don't have to spend this kind of money to put on a Winter Olympics."
John Furlong, former CEO of the Vancouver Olympics, and a special committee will help Calgary if it decides to submit a bid to host the 2026 Games. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Canadian Olympic Committee asked Furlong to help a Canadian city develop a bid for the 2026 Games. Calgary, host of the 1988 Games, is the only city that still has its hand up.

"We're just at the very early stages here, but Calgary is a city that brings together all of its assets and maybe the assets around it," Furlong said.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is on vacation in Rio. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Most of the facilities used in 1988 are still up and running. The Olympic Oval, Canada Olympic Park and the Canmore Nordic Centre could use a renovation, but they don't need to be built from the ground up. The ski jump and bobsled track would likely need to be completely replaced.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is in Rio for the Olympics. His office says it's a personal vacation, but he's been spotted at Canada Olympic House chatting with officials and athletes while his city considers whether to launch a formal bid.

'Don't need so many seats'

If Nenshi has taken in any sporting events, he's likely noticed plenty of empty seats. The common sight of sparse crowds in massive stadiums has become a major story of these Games.

"We don't need so many seats," Calgarian and former Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury told CBC in Rio. "Something's not working. We've got massive stadiums here. But the stadiums aren't being filled."

Since most of the audience is watching on television or online, Tewksbury argues venues should be much smaller and less expensive — focus on the screen and have fewer seats.
A child plays on empty seats at Deodoro Stadium, the rugby venue for the Rio Games. The number of empty seats at major events has become a highly visible problem. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

The International Olympic Committee has the same idea, which is part of its pitch to keep nations interested in hosting. In addition to Calgary, other cities considering a bid for the 2026 Games include Salt Lake City, which hosted in 2002; Sapporo, Japan (1972); and Innsbruck, Austria (1964 and 1976).

Pairing cities

Another option is pairing cities. Some of Rio's soccer matches were played in Sao Paulo. Quebec City floated the idea of a joint bid for the 2026 Games with Lake Placid, N.Y., but it didn't go anywhere. There's long been talk of a three-way bid between Austria, Germany and Italy.

Furlong says Vancouver was the type of Games the IOC wants going forward, one where virtually all the facilities still have an important role after the competition ends.

Calgary actually hosted the first Olympics to make substantial money — a fact that isn't lost on senior members of the IOC.

The city has until September 2017 to decide whether to enter a formal bid. The IOC would then vote in 2019, giving the winner seven years to prepare for the Games.

About the Author

David Common is a host & senior correspondent with CBC News.

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