Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics·Analysis

The real loser from Calgary's 'No' vote? The Olympic movement

The result of Tuesday's vote not only means Calgary will not host the 2026 Olympics, CBC Sports host Scott Russell writes that it's also an Olympic-sized wake-up call. Not everyone loves the Games, at least not the way they are now. Not even the people of Calgary.

Huge wake-up call for IOC

Dave King, left, Linda King, right, the son and daughter of 1988 Calgary bid architect Frank King, react to the results of a plebiscite on whether the city should proceed with a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, in Calgary, on Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

There are no two ways around it.

If you are one of the many people who love the Olympics and Paralympics, the results of the vote in Calgary on Tuesday night are worrisome.

To think that a significant majority of those who cast ballots on whether to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games chose the negative response is like taking a cold shower.

It's a wake-up call: Not everyone loves the Games, at least not the way they are now. Not even the people of Calgary.

The No side won with 56.4 per cent of the vote, a total of 304,774 people cast ballots across the city. 3:43

These are people who are reminded daily of the positive legacy of the 1988 Olympics in terms of facilities, international reputation, and a sporting culture which has undeniably enriched the lives of its many citizens for more than one generation.

But history, it seems, is just that, a thing of the past.

Risks seemed to outweigh benefits

What counted most in the majority of voters' minds, as this plebiscite demonstrated, was not the potential benefit of hosting the Olympics again, the Paralympics for the first time, or the community building that might result, but the risks associated with such an effort.

The bid was modest, responsible, and in keeping with a modern vision for the Olympics. The case was made that the Paralympic Winter Games were not hosted in Calgary in 1988 and that this was an opportunity to make the city more accessible and inclusive, and the envy of the world.

The bid committee planned to refurbish existing venues, utilize past experience in hosting the Games, build contingencies to protect against cost overruns, tighten security — and renew a strong legacy while stimulating a slumping economy.

Another Olympics and Paralympics, the advocates argued, would showcase Calgary on the global stage and help bring the city together.

Warning signs in council

Instead, the proposed bid divided the people. You could see it coming as late as Oct. 31 when city council almost abandoned the process. There was name calling and more than one accusation that creative accounting had been done to make the financial arrangements seem more palatable.

One councillor expressed a reservation to do business with the federal government. Some said they didn't understand the numbers on the ledger and that there were surely other, more pressing, priorities for the city budget.

More than a few of the politicians were wary of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a perceived, recent tendency for corruption and irresponsibility when it comes to staging the Olympics.

Doping scandals, greed, fiscal mismanagement and massive security concerns all got a thorough airing out as this debate plodded on. Outspoken Olympians and Paralympians came out to support the bid, but the backlash on social media was most disturbing. Some of these athletes were portrayed as an elite group of entitled, sports people looking to waste a bunch of money on a two-week party.

These are the same athletes who the city, province, and country eagerly celebrated at previous Olympic and Paralympic Games. They are the very same athletes who have gone on to become civic leaders and major contributors to the health of Calgary's communal narrative.

It is startling to see something decline in value. It's not as if Calgary is the only city to pass on hosting the modern Games by way of plebiscite. The German cities of Munich and Hamburg have done the same. Boston and Oslo pulled out of bids. Past hosts St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Innsbruck, Austria, have also said no recently.

The fact is, fewer and fewer cities are enamoured with the Olympics and by extension, the Paralympics.

Opportunity lost, or mistake avoided?

Whereas Canadians held their breath in anticipation of Vancouver being chosen to host the 2010 Games, the majority of people in Calgary, the city that pulled off one of the most successful Winter Games ever, turned their noses up at the prospect of another and more complete chance.

It's no one's fault and there are no villains here on the yes or the no side. Many will say it's an opportunity lost. Others are firm in their belief that it's a mistake avoided.

The real loser here is the Olympic movement itself.

There is little doubt that had Calgary gone ahead with its ambition to bid for the 2026 Games, it would have become the frontrunner to win the competition. Surviving bids from Cortina/Milan, Italy and Stockholm, Sweden have no government funding and few of the infrastructure advantages that Calgary's now abandoned bid had.

All of which means those who run the Olympics have to take a long, hard, look at themselves and what they're doing to their brand. It's very revealing that they are now held in such low esteem that they desperately wanted Calgary, but as it turns out Calgary didn't want them.

Questions will immediately surround Calgary's existing legacy. What becomes of the facilities?

Will they be renewed and refurbished? More importantly, what happens to the intangible and infectious Olympic spirit which has characterized the place for the last 30 years?

Calgary is identified as an Olympic city — it always will be. It is without question one of the landmark hosts in Winter Games history.

That said, the past is all too often, easy to forget. This result which says no to another Games means the people of Calgary are sending the people in charge of the Olympics a very clear message: Wake up and look to a better future in a hurry.

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