You’ve probably already read and heard a lot of so-called experts explaining why the people of Calgary voted against a bid for the 2026 Olympic Games. A lot of the analysis misses the mark.
On the surface, it appeared this venture was tailor-made for a city known for its entrepreneurism, can-do spirit and accomplished winter athletes. As one friend remarked before Tuesday’s vote, “Has Calgary ever said no to anything?”
Understanding why citizens said no anyway requires a look at broader trends in western culture.
An acquaintance of mine tweeted that the no vote was Calgary’s Brexit. In a broad sense, she’s right.
We are, collectively, in an era of rebellion against the mother hens – you know, those people who are constantly telling us what’s good for us. Sometimes, we oppose certain courses of action even when we stand to benefit (as we were constantly told about the 2026 Games). We resist for no other reason than the people in power want it.
The people in power in Calgary did want the Games.
Big forces were at play in the campaign to vote yes. The yes campaign was a well-financed machine. The city’s business and political establishments were solidly behind it, and the yes campaign had many more outspoken leaders pushing for the bid than its opponents did. Well-known and respected Olympic athletes spoke out in favour of the bid, as did the city’s once-seemingly infallible mayor, Naheed Nenshi.
Calgarians were not swayed. In fact, it seemed the more urgent the appeals, the more turned off the city’s citizens became.
None of this is to suggest the citizens are wrong (although I must disclose that I’m among those disappointed by the people’s choice). But the discourse and the decision does reflect trends we’re seeing in many jurisdictions around the world – from Brexit, to the rise of populism and even to the election in Alberta of the ultimate anti-establishment provincial party, the New Democrats.
People no longer feel that their voices are being heard by those in power. They’ve lost faith in our institutions – including government, business, the courts and, yes, the media, which is seen to be complicit.
Of course, one of the institutions everyone is most skeptical of is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And for good reason, if you review the history of corruption and cost overruns in recent Olympic Games.
The IOC has a tough job convincing people that 2026 would be different. Representatives came to Calgary, cap in hand, arguing that the organization has turned over a new leaf. Its Agenda 2020 initiative aims to move the Olympics away from the spending orgies of recent years, and make the Games more affordable and sustainable.
But I’ve felt for some time that this appeal is a bit like reaching for a get-out-of-jail-free card – as though the public should forgive the IOC for past indiscretions just because it’s vowing to do better this time (isn’t that what abusers always say?).
And, of course, asking the public to throw their lot in with the IOC is asking them to trust an organization that has yet to demonstrate that Agenda 2020 is the real deal.
Calgary’s decisive no vote is also a red flag for Nenshi. When he came from nowhere to defeat two high-profile conservative mayoral candidates in 2010, he won because he was not from the establishment. Now, after eight years in office, the tables have turned. He is the establishment and voters have grown skeptical of the motives behind his pro-bid appeals.
Citizens gave a lot of reasons for voting no: the deal wasn’t good enough, we can’t afford to take on the debt, the money could be better spent in other places.
Those are not-insignificant considerations.
Yet I don’t think those are the real reasons why Calgary won’t be bidding on the 2026 Games. The real reason is Calgarians didn’t want the establishment telling them what to do.
For disappointed pro-Games campaigners, there’s much to be learned from listening to those frustrated voices.