Chopping up the dumbest arguments ahead of the Olympic vote

“I get that the Olympics are a big nostalgia trip for those of you who wore the pin and bought the hat back in 1988. Personally, I was four, but I hear it was quite the party.” Jen Gerson on a potential Calgary Olympic bid.

‘Smile politely and nod while confining the screaming to your mind’

The Olympic flame burns over Calgary's McMahon Stadium in 1988. On Nov. 13, the city will host a non-binding plebiscite to determine whether or not to bid for the 2026 Winter Games. (Philip Walker/Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of the Road Ahead series, we're offering this opinion piece from Jen Gerson, who argues against a Calgary Olympic bid. On Wednesday we'll have an opinion piece from someone arguing in favour of a bid.

Calgary is heading for a plebiscite on an Olympic bid, which means those of us who are paying attention should expect to be inundated with bizarre, potentially misleading rhetoric in the hope of swaying ballots for, or against, the Games.

On the whole, plebiscites and referenda are terrible public policy tools — they devolve accountability and decision-making to the people who are least informed and least qualified to decide anything. But in this case, there is an argument for it.

Calgarians should do their civic duty on Nov. 13 and vote.

The Olympics are not exactly the unbesmirched feel-good photo-filter events of yesteryear. International sporting events are increasingly methods by which despotic leaders and third-world countries recycle the appearance of goodwill and fair-dealing back to the world. That kind of PR doesn't come cheap: both security and infrastructure costs are now absurd, and the International Olympic Committee is now dogged by regular accusations of doping and corruption.

The people of Calgary deserve to understand this before they commit to a multibillion-dollar party that will, ironically, do more to buoy the flagging image of the Olympics than of the city.

Which isn't to say there is nothing in the deal for us; so without further ado, I present the top dumbest arguments you should steel yourself for ahead of the vote.

Games will cost $5.2 billion

Whenever anyone cites the absurdly low estimate of $5.2 billion, feel free to just roll your eyes and look above their head until they stop talking.

According to the estimates put forward by the city's bid corporation, only $3 billion of that figure will be borne by taxpayers; the Canadian thing to do, here, is to smile politely and nod while confining the screaming to your mind.

No host city has correctly estimated the cost of holding an Olympics since 1960. On average, these costs are underestimated by an astonishing 50 per cent. We will not be the exception.

Low-balling the bid at this state is simply part of the ritual of deception that precedes these kinds of bids.

Mary Moran speaks during a press conference after being named the new Calgary 2026 Olympic bid committee CEO in Calgary in July. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

By comparison, the cost of the Vancouver Olympics were more than $7 billion — in 2010 dollars. Inflation will have its way with our estimates over the next eight years. And Vancouver 2010 was a relatively well-managed affair, albeit one with significant infrastructure costs that aren't being considered in Calgary's case.

Already, a leaked document from Calgary's bid has pointed out that there will need to be additional spending over and above $5.2 billion, previously undisclosed.

In short, you would be clever to substitute "hopefully between $7 and $10 billion" whenever you hear the number "$5.2 billion," or risk feeling like a chump later.

It's an economic boost!

It isn't.

You need to stretch the economic models pretty widely — and, arguably, deceptively — to get to the idea that the Olympics are some kind of economic multiplier. The Games largely divert cash that would be spent elsewhere. A taxpayer dollar spent here is a dollar that isn't getting spent somewhere else where it could have as much, if not more, of an economic impact.

Let's go back to Vancouver for a moment: a post hoc Olympic study found the Games didn't even provide a significant tourism boost to the city in the year they were held.

It's true that Calgary is still struggling to climb out of a nasty downturn, and the Games would provide a short-term morale boost and a common goal. There are psychological benefits to being a host city, even if they are impossible to quantify.

But it should also be noted that we may not be in such a funk by 2026. For all we know, oil will be back at $90 a barrel, and we'll be frittering away another low-vacancy-$25-an-hour-to-work-at-Timmies boom by the time the Olympics roll around.

Reconciliation with First Nations

Without intending any disrespect to any First Nations that plan to benefit by this bid, attaching the Olympics to reconciliation efforts has got to be one of the most cynical political ploys I've ever seen in Alberta.

Reconciliation is an ongoing, generational attempt to make amends with the First Nations people on whose lands we now prosper. Hosting a giant international sporting event and expensive party will mostly just fluff the ambitions and agendas and nostalgia of the city's elite-most citizens.

I hope that the bid corporation will work assiduously to ensure the Olympics provide meaningful long-term benefits to First Nations communities — but that should be standard operating procedure for any project of this magnitude nowadays, not something to crow about.

And considering the Olympics are unlikely to provide many long-term benefits to any aspect of the community, I have my doubts that the Games are going to do much to make up for residential schools.

This rhetoric is a clumsy effort to parlay goodwill and guilt into a yes vote.

Think of the legacies!

Yes, it's true the 1988 Olympics left Calgary with killer infrastructure, including Canada Olympic Park and the Olympic Oval. This is the kind of infrastructure that set up subsequent winter athletes with top-notch training facilities and helped further Canada's reputation for winter sports excellence.

It's also true that many of these facilities are aging, and in need of a facelift.

But if our governments can't justify upgrading these existing legacies without an Olympic bid, I'm puzzled as to why we should spend more money on these facilities and an Olympic bid. Instead of handing a blank cheque to the International Olympics Committee, why aren't we simply lobbying for funds to maintain our existing Olympic legacy?

If these assets aren't worthy enough to be worth saving for their own sake, then what value do they actually have? If we have to host an Olympics every 40 years to maintain these things, then they aren't legacies. They're loans.

And while we're here, why is it that the only legacies that seem to count in this city are sports legacies? Calgary already has a solid reputation as a winter sports city — if we need a boost to anything, it's to our arts and culture scene.

We have the beginnings of a really vibrant city: events like the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, our local craft scene, small breweries, a proliferation of creative food trucks and a burgeoning food culture. Why not focus on boosting those grassroots initiatives, or on renovating the Glenbow Museum and our theatre facilities?

I get that the Olympics are a big nostalgia trip for those of you who wore the pin and bought the hat back in 1988. Personally, I was four, but I hear it was quite the party. And look, I get it, retro is hip again.

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

But in all honesty, I don't hear a lot of people in my age bracket pining to turn Calgary into a flashy security cordon for two weeks. What I hear about is a desire for more recreation centres, gastropubs, bike lanes, bespoke coffee shops and galleries. Good schools, kids' classes and a strong economy — these are the sorts of amenities that will keep young people committed to Calgary. The Olympics are grandma's nostalgia trip.

Which is maybe why there is a ho-hum vibe about this bid. There is no passion, here, except among the boomer set.

We're the Olympics' last hope

The most compelling argument that I can think of for this bid is not that we need the Olympics, but rather, the Olympics needs us.

As mentioned above, the Olympics have become the plaything of an elite and despotic global class. The franchise needs to demonstrate that it can be better — that it can operate in a free, prosperous democratic nation — and preferably one in a lucrative North American time zone for the purposes of broadcasting rights. Ka-ching!

There is a reason why the 2026 Winter Games are not exactly crowded with competition. The IOC needs to demonstrate it can host a cost-effective Games with a minimum of corruption and dictator apologia.

Sweden is still looking at bidding, and it would a respectable spot, certainly, but not ideal, as by 2026, neither the Summer nor the Winter Olympics will have been held in North America since 2010. The same criticism stands with Italy. The other major contender is Turkey. Great. Just what the IOC needs: the Erdogan Games. That sounds coup d'etastic!

An Olympics bid will bring massively increased global scrutiny to our oil and gas industry, but otherwise, Calgary is in an ideal spot to negotiate a good deal, here.

Frugal, friendly, and conveniently located in Mountain Standard Time. We have everything the Olympics needs to help reform its own image — and that, I think, is the real Olympic legacy we can be proud of.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us

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  • An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the city is holding a referendum on whether to bid on the Olympics. In fact, the vote on Nov. 13 will be a plebiscite.
    Oct 02, 2018 10:51 AM MT


Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.


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