Calgary·Analysis

Whither the 2026 Olympic bid? Calgary mulls its options to host another Games

It's become a host city market for cities considering an Olympic bid. The prestige of being a host city is waning in the face of Olympic corruption scandals, doping and ballooning costs. These days, cities dealing with the International Olympic Committee have the upper hand.

With many cities no longer interested in hosting the Olympics, Calgary holds the cards in dealing with the IOC

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said he believes Calgary could do a great job of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics. But he also said it's too soon to ask residents of the city whether they agree. (CBC)

It's tough to argue with the glow that comes off a successful Olympic Games.

There's little doubt Canadians from coast to coast to coast are feeling the kind of national pride that soars when an athlete wearing a maple leaf climbs onto an Olympic podium. 

It's a shared moment between an elite athlete and their country.

If you're running a city considering a bid to host the Olympics, now would be a good time to harness that feeling and turn it into public support to launch a bid.  

But, as Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi quite rightly states, there's no real question for city council to put to the public yet. 

"Public engagement at this point, where we don't really have any numbers, would not be helpful," he said. "You don't want to generically ask people, 'Do you like the Olympics? Do you like the IOC?'"  

The 1988 Winter Games in Calgary laid the foundation for the Canada's Olympic successes, and changed the face of Calgary. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Those aren't the questions any city that is considering a pricey bid for an even pricier Olympic games needs to ask in 2018.

In a pre-Pyeongchang national survey, pollster Angus Reid tried to capture the mood of Canadians when it comes to Olympics and Olympic bids. 

Canadians 'split on the issue'

Angus Reid executive director, Shachi Kurl, said the country has mixed feelings about the value of hosting another Olympic Games. "They're pretty split on the issue."

"There was a time when a sense of nationhood, a sense of growing up, a sense of adulthood as a region or a city was to host a big event like an Expo or an Olympics. Canada's now been home to three Olympic Games."

In other words, Canada has nothing to prove. 

Kurl also says the Canadian Olympic consciousness hasn't been spared the public embarrassment heaped on the International Olympic Committee in recent years.

"Sochi [was] a Games and a bid that was riddled with corruption and scandal and doping," Kurl said. "So many questions often [arise] about the social price of hosting a Games." 

It has all led to much more nuanced and balanced opinions. They are sentiments not unique to Canada. 

Denver and Salt Lake City pulled out of potential bids for 2026.

IOC favours Calgary for 2026

Moshe Lander, a professor of economics with a specialty in sports at Concordia University, says that's a sign of two things. 

First, that the IOC favours Calgary. "If they want it, it's theirs and with the U.S. dropping out, it really is theirs to lose."

Many of the Olympic facilities built for the Olympics in Calgary are still in use today. The Scotiabank Saddledome is the home of the Calgary Flames, among other teams. (Genevieve Normand/CBC Radio-Canada)

Secondly, many international cities are simply no longer as interested in pursuing the brass Olympic ring. 

"The fear right now, is nobody wants to host the Olympics because inevitably it hands the taxpayer a massive bill and infrastructure that falls into disrepair or infrastructure that really isn't needed," he says.

Besides, there are three Olympics in Asia in a row (Pyeongchang 2018, Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is keen on getting the Games back to time-zone-friendly North America, which both advertisers and the big broadcast networks prefer. 

The IOC's response is a commitment to austerity. It has toured potential host cities on its own dime for the first time. 

Reusing facilities an advantage

It is also sending a clear message that a scaled-back, leaner Games — even one reusing older and refurbished facilities — will be an advantage.

With few international-level cities expressing an interest in hosting the Olympics, Calgary holds the cards in its dealings with the IOC. (Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images)

And then there's that matter of dangling a financial carrot: The IOC is committed to defraying around a billion dollars of the cost of whichever city eventually wins the 2026 Games.

Calgary Coun. Jeromy Farkas says his city shouldn't be the test case for the IOC's new attitude.

"When you see so many cities and countries running away from hosting the Games, that should be the alarm bell," Farkas said outside Calgary City council chambers earlier this week.

"Let other cities become the guinea pigs and see if the IOC can actually follow through and reduce the costs for host cities."

A self-described "Olympic nerd," Nenshi said he was more convinced after joining a contingent of provincial and federal counterparts on a fact-finding mission in Pyeongchang. 

Calgary awaiting word on funding

It's not clear what, if anything else, the IOC is offering to sweeten the pot for Calgary. What happened in Pyeongchang is staying in Pyeongchang for the moment. 

But, as Calgary awaits word from the federal government and the Alberta government about how much cash they're willing to bring to the table for a bid and beyond, they will do so knowing the rules of the Games have changed and potential host cities are the ones holding the cards.

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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