Why Calgary passed on the 2026 Olympics — and what's next for the Games nobody seems to want
Out of 8 host bids, just 2 remain — with a possible dark horse waiting in the wings
Calgary voters have sent politicians a clear message: They want no part of the city's beleaguered bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The vote is not binding, but should leave those on Calgary city council no doubt. Leading up to this plebiscite, bid organizers had hoped for a Yes vote somewhere in the mid-50s, closer to 60 per cent support if things went well.
They didn't come close. The results were decisive: 132,832 for Calgary hosting (43.6 per cent) and 171,750 against (56.4 per cent). The official result will be made available at 3 p.m. MT on Friday, with results by riding posted Thursday at noon.
After asking voters for guidance, Calgary's council will likely formally halt the city's bidding process at a meeting on Monday.
When Calgary initially announced plans to pursue the 2026 Winter Olympics, it all seemed so perfect. Calgary would recapture the Olympic spirit and excitement that enveloped and boosted the city when it hosted the 1988 Winter Games.
But for many, this bid never felt like 1988. Whatever the magical feeling was 30 years ago, it never captured voters. And now, Calgary's nascent Olympic bid has finally lurched to an unceremonious end.
So, what happened?
Those behind Calgary 2026 did a lot of things right. They engaged and mobilized a cross-section of supportive voices. They attempted to showcase the Games as opportunity to revitalize and refurbish the physical legacy of 1988. Organizers also pointed to a successful bid as a needed economic lifeline for a city whose economy has been crippled by falling oil prices.
Wrong event at the wrong time
But as this process evolved, so too did an opposition that grew more mobilized and vocal as decision day approached. With far less money at their disposal than the professional bid committee, a web of critics appear to have effectively delivered their message that this was the wrong event at the wrong time for Calgary.
And from an outside perspective, beyond the boosterism of those connected to the Olympic movement, there never seemed to be an overwhelming amount of genuine excitement among everyday Calgarians.
Perhaps that could have been overcome. Most of the concerns surrounding this bid centred on who would pay for the Games. But voters either didn't like or couldn't understand the numbers they were given. Even on the floor of Calgary city council, leading up to this vote, there was confusion about exactly how much each level of government would provide.
Voters were promised this information before being asked to decide whether they wanted an Olympics.
"What is the number we can take to the citizens of the city of Calgary?" Coun. Jeremy Farkas asked.
Judging by the results, the 11th-hour funding agreement by the city, the Alberta government and Ottawa, weeks before this vote, provided Calgarians little clarity or confidence.
Past Olympic failures loomed large
This bid also undeniably fell victim to the unpleasant baggage weighing down the Olympic movement. The cynical narrative is familiar by now. Cities spend billions more than initially proposed to host a two-week party that leaves little long-term positive economic impact.
Robert Livingstone operates the website GamesBids.com and has followed this process closely. He says people are increasingly wise about past Olympic failures.
"It's so ingrained and people perceive that the Olympic culture is corrupt, often real corruption in some cases. They have seen this big build and the overspend."
Livingstone points out the International Olympic Committee has taken steps to mitigate this perception among Calgary voters.
In the past, the IOC has rarely interacted or visited with potential host cities. But with fewer cities lining up to host the Olympics, the IOC has resorted to actively selling the Games. Its representatives visited Calgary numerous times in recent months, attending town halls and doing rounds of media interviews.
Livingstone also says the IOC, as part of its Agenda 2020, has taken steps to make the Games easier to bid on and cheaper to host. For example, in past Games, the IOC usually insisted on new buildings, often with little long-term practical use for host cities. But Calgary's bid focused on the IOC-supported idea of mostly refurbishing old facilities instead of building new ones.
Agenda 2020 never resonated in Calgary
The lean bid model may work to counter the Olympic bid narrative, Livingstone says, but it may have actually made a potential bid less attractive for Calgary voters.
"I think Agenda 2020 is a total disconnect in Calgary," Livingstone says. "Agenda 2020 didn't make sense because in Calgary, they want the venues. They wouldn't stop talking about the NHL arena and how they were going to get at it and the rail link to the airport. But because of Agenda 2020, it was left off [and] not included."
So what now for the 2026 Winter Olympics — the Games that nobody seems to want?
When this process began, there were eight hopeful cities. Only two remain: Stockholm, and a joint Italian bid. And both of those bids face significant internal political hurdles.
Livingstone thinks there could be another host lurking in the background.
"I really think that the IOC is hoping that Stockholm and Italy just go away and then they can work with Salt Lake City."
The American city, like Calgary, also has an Olympic legacy, having hosted the Games in 2002. Livingstone says the difference in Utah is a genuine enthusiasm to do it again.
"As they say themselves, they can get this done tomorrow [with] 89 per cent public support. They have the Utah governor already signing off on it. They did a feasibility study, and literally they could host the Games next year."
For many in Calgary, it seems that's just fine.
Calgary, along with the rest of the country, will undoubtedly enjoy the 2026 Winter Olympics wherever they eventually land.
We will continue to celebrate medals and Canadian achievement, content to let somebody else foot the bill.