Calgarians have a lot to consider when they go to the polls next week

, , Comments Off on Calgarians have a lot to consider when they go to the polls next week

But even if citizens swallow the uncertainty and vote to host the games, the road to 2026 will be very long indeed.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on November 5, 2018.

OTTAWA—A Calgary Winter Olympic bid plebiscite next week is only the first hurdle in the city’s potential 2026 hosting bid.

Whether Calgarians want to cough up cash in lean times remains to be seen. Even the majority of city council opposes the bid, although an eight-hour long debate did not yield enough opposition to kill it.

Council voted 8-7 to end the bid but rules required a two-thirds majority to reverse a previous positive council decision. The chair of the bid committee, councillor Evan Woolley, was a key opponent of hosting the games, claiming a new trilateral financial agreement prompted more questions than answers.

Olympic supporters jammed council chambers with noisy chants in support of the bid. But the social media told another story.

Many were griping online that those who would be footing the bill could not make their voices heard because the meeting was held during normal working hours.

But Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a vocal bid supporter, made a compelling financial case as to why citizens should support the bid.

“This is an incredibly good deal. After all that sausage-making, the sausage that came out of it is amazing.” Nenshi said the investment yield a ten-to-one return in capital improvements to public facilities that will remain long after the games. He said the city was already going to spend $350-million on McMahon stadium and field house upgrades. The increased bill of $40-million would result in a $4-billion dollar Olympic investment.

But even if the Nov. 13 plebiscite passes muster, the biggest hurdle is convincing the world that a single city should host the games twice in a period of less than forty years.

Add that to the fact that Canada hosted winter games in Vancouver-Whistler less than 10 years ago, sympathy at the International Olympic Committee may not be in Calgary’s court. At this point, there are competing bids from Sweden and Italy, both of which appear to have fewer naysayers.

City dissent, while not unusual in Canadian pre-game bids, will also affect the level of support that can be expected at the International Olympic Committee. These international decision-makers are nothing if not political. And if it looks as though local opposition is building, the IOC may simply not want to take the risk.

But if Calgary is successful, the struggling city will enjoy more than an economic rebound.

The last time Calgary hosted the games was 1988. By all accounts, the event was a smashing success. It left Calgary with a sports legacy that is still paying dividends. Athletes from all over Canada move to the city to take advantage of the national training centre that was developed as a legacy from the games. Many of the historic number of medals that Canada garnered in 2010 were a direct result of the national sport legacy spawned in Calgary.

The city has also been an incubator for retiring athletes to embark on new careers, building on their Olympic prowess.

Nenshi is right about the unequalled federal and provincial investment levels the games would bring.

The city is required to pay a cash contribution and offer up some in-kind investment but the bulk of the financial strain will be borne by the federal government, shared in half measure by the province.

The IOC has also promised to provide more than $1-billion in financial incentives, so struggling cities can afford to bid on the games.

The federal government reworked a pre-existing funding agreement that required a 50-50 between the federal government and provincial and local authorities. New rules require the city to be responsible for any deficit.

A cost-cutting agreement tabled on the eve of the council vote last Wednesday, shaved $125-million off the initial $3-billion public funding estimate. Savings in security and housing construction were cited. The total bill is estimated to be $5.2-million.

But question still looming large even after the council vote, is a city pledge to buy an insurance policy to cover up to $200-million in cost overruns. City management warned that it is unclear whether an overrun insurance policy is even available.

All in all, it leaves Calgarians have a lot to consider when they go to the polls next week.

Chances are the ayes will have it. Games organizers have mobilized strong business support and everyone knows that Calgary needs an economic boost.

But even if citizens swallow the uncertainty and vote to host the games, the road to 2026 will be very long indeed.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.