A generation after the 1988 Winter Olympics transformed Calgary, its citizens are debating whether to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Calgary council votes on Sept. 10 on whether to keep the process alive, and its citizens will have their say in a plebiscite on Nov. 13.
What are the risks and rewards in hosting the Games? What might they do for the region? Can we recapture the magic of ’88? The Olympic Decision 2026 series, in partnership with SeekersMedia, explores these and other questions. This is the first of a multi-part series to run before Calgary city council votes on Sept. 10.
Forget massive artsy buildings, like Beijing’s flashy US$480-million Bird’s Nest stadium. If they decide to bid for the 2026 Olympic Games, Calgarians will do it with a tight fist – reviving and reusing facilities from 1988.
“We have a lot of great assets,” says Mary Moran, CEO of Calgary 2026. With some refurbishment, “they could last us another 30 years.”
Moran says Calgary has the jelly to show how facilities can be reused and “rekindled” with a little love. It’s the only way the Games would make sense in a relatively small market.
“We’re a second-tier city, not a first-tier city,” says Moran. “We have to live within our means.”
The tab for hosting the Olympics in Calgary has been set at C$4.6 billion or more – including infrastructure, security, travel and many other costs. The cash would come from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), senior governments, corporate sponsorship, and some local tax revenue.
That’s a big number, for sure, but it’s one-third the US$12.9 billion spent in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and it’s a tenth of the – cough, cough – US$50 million-plus spent in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Polishing up some old shoes
Bringing old facilities back to life is a huge way to cut costs. The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC) cooked up a preliminary shopping list in 2017 and rang in a bill of just less than $392 million (although that number is expected to grow with inflation).
Much of what Calgary built to host the 1988 Winter Olympics stands and could be used with some updating. WinSport (formerly Canadian Olympic Park) is one. With a fresh face, it could host bobsleigh, skeleton, luge, aerials, moguls, slopestyle, halfpipe, big and para bobsleigh, according to CBEC’s 2017 report.
But it couldn’t host ski-jumping without major surgery – a doubtful prospect, since it’s not really seen as a legacy sport.
“It comes down to dollars and cents,” says Moran. “What is the long-term demand for ski-jumping?”
Other spots – including Whistler, B.C., have not been ruled out as ski-jump spots: “It’s not a long distance in a relative sense.”
Curling could also be hosted out of town because Calgary doesn’t have enough ice slabs. Moran says the committee is looking for venues in Edmonton and even “out of province.” Moran says curling fans are “strongly loyal” to their sport and tend to have less interest in other Olympic sports, so a distant location could work.
WinSport is one of four regional clusters identified in the CBEC report. The others are: University of Calgary (the Olympic oval), the Stampede grounds and the mountain zone, which includes the Canmore Nordic Centre, Nakiska and maybe even Lake Louise.
The CBEC report sees Nakiska – a major site in 1988 – as the home for alpine technical, snowboard parallel giant slalom, ski and snowboard cross, para alpine and para-snowboard. However, because of sketchy snow conditions it got low grades in 1988 for alpine speed events (downhill and Super G), so don’t count on it for those.
Lake Louise could roll out the red carpet for downhill and Super G, Moran says, although the committee has to dig into the economics, transportation, security and environment issues of operating in a national park. Nakiska is still on the table – if it upgraded its snowmaking chops.
The Canmore Nordic Centre would welcome back biathlon and cross-country skiing, para biathlon and para cross-country. It even hasn’t been ruled out as a ski-jumping venue.
The CBEC report assumed that a lot of non-Olympics sports facilities in the planning stages will get up and running before 2026. These include:
- an 18,000-seat NHL-sized arena in the Rivers District;
- a multi-purpose fieldhouse in the Foothills Athletic Park;
- expanding the BMO Centre at Stampede Park;
- $10 million in upgrades to the Canmore Nordic Centre;
- Parks Canada approval of Lake Louise’s master redevelopment plan;
- $20 million in upgrades to WinSport.
But don’t sweat the arena. The IOC has said it doesn’t think we have to have one – if Calgary opts not to pony up for a new arena, the Saddledome could be tarted up for 2026.
The IOC’s Agenda 2020 is all about more affordable games. Among its goals:
- Changes to the candidature procedure, inviting potential candidate cities to present a project that fits their sporting, economic, social and environmental long-term planning needs.
- Reducing costs for bidding and providing a significant financial contribution from the IOC.
Calgary can still bail on this bid by bowing out at any one of three upcoming off-ramps. The first is coming up fast: a Sept. 10 Calgary city council vote. The second is IOC’s short-listing of candidate cities in October. And the last chance to cut and run is a Nov. 13 citizen vote in Calgary.
The IOC will finger the winning bid in September 2019.
Not just for (money) losers
Running frugal – and maybe even profitable – Olympics has been done before.
In 1984, Los Angeles ran the first profitable Olympics since 1932 because it used mostly existing structures and landed some golden corporate help.
Seoul claimed a profit from the Olympics in 1988, but that didn’t count US$1.5 billion in government spending on stadiums, roads, transportation, and other facilities. Even so, with those costs added in, Seoul nearly broke even.
In 1992, Barcelona made a profit from hosting the Olympics and the Games helped the city recover its mojo.
Making the Calgary project work is like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together, Moran says: accommodations, broadcast needs, transportation and environmental issues. All of it while keeping an eye on the bottom line.
“You have to care about what the economics are for the Olympics,” Moran says. “The Olympics can be expensive, but they don’t have to be.”