By Stephen Hunt
‘They’re around the turn!’
The road to Calgary 2026 has hit the homestretch.
It’s eight days to next Tuesday, when everyone in the city gets a say is setting our municipal GPS, when we hold a plebiscite on whether or not to bid to host the 2026 Winter Games and Paralympic Games.
We’re right at that point where the competitors hit the final 100 meters, and kick things into a higher gear, because the final result stands an excellent chance of coming down to a stride here, a stretch there — a photo finish, as they like to say at the (horse)track.
It’s fun to write about a potential Olympic bid as a sports event itself, and in a way — thanks to the conditions laid down by the Alberta government — it is one.
If the people of Calgary vote Yes November 13, chances are good city council will vote yes to bid to host the 2026 Games.
If the people vote No, the province’s offer to spend $700 million, along with the federal government’s promise to invest over $1.4B, along with around $2.3B in private economic activity that hosting would generate, disappears.
The reality is that this run to November 13 has been as much an election campaign as an autumn road race to the four corners of Calgary, Banff and Canmore.
It’s been as dirty as a bitterly contested leadership race, too, with one side playing the role of sober second thought, while portraying supporters as fanciful dreamers with no concept of how to responsibly run a household or worse — rich insiders gaming the system for personal benefit, while ordinary taxpayers get stiffed.
Could this be our Brexit?
You know, the vote where you take out all your frustrations on a ballot, only to wake up the next day and discover nothing is going to be done, no $4B is coming down the pipe, those office towers are going to remain empty — and why did we all think it was such a bad deal again?
The biggest opposition hasn’t developed along ideological lines, however.
It’s generational — and driven by the generation who experienced, benefitted from and in many cases, participated in the 1988 Winter Games.
“I’m still gathering information,” said unemployed IT consultant Calgarian Gary Silberg, one of thousands of Calgarians slammed by the recession — who was part of the 1988 Opening Ceremonies — at a September 20 Town Hall meeting held at Jack Singer Hall.
“Generally, I’m leaning against it,” he said, “because of the cost.”
Elephant proofing the games
On the other side of the ledger, the Yes side is dominated by economic developers, community builders, athletes, entrepreuneurs and civic leaders in all sorts of sectors.
Sometimes it gets wonky, listening to economic development folks talk about how to supercharge a municipal economy, but if the city is in rough enough shape to set aside $100 million to try to kickstart its economy through economic diversification — and it is — how much kickstart could around $4B provide?
For around $390 M — the city’s contribution — spread out over 7 years of municipal budgets (roughly $57M a year), the city receives an injection of $4B, hundreds of millions more in global media coverage, and an opportunity to create a new generation of volunteers, athletes, artists and community heroes.
Is that a cost, or is that the opportunity of a lot of our lifetimes?
When I started out 2018, I shared quite a few sentiments held by the No side, because — well, because I like to think of myself as pragmatic, not fancy, fiscally responsible and realistic.
You know. Build through the draft. Live within your means. Dream small. Better yet, don’t dream at all. Get up, pull on some pants, and get on with the business end of life.
A prairie guy.
Men and women like the me that I was at the start of the year have attended every presentation. They stand at the mic and point out the elephant in the room, because elephants are hard to miss.
(The IOC! Security costs! Unnecessary, costly venues! City Hall!)
That’s what these presentations have largely been: exercises in creating a bid that elephant proofs your city.
And weirdest thing of all: the International Olympic Committee appears, by all accounts, to agree 100% that Olympic elephants, including their own organization, need to be reined in.
Now, 10 months into it, many events, and many, many Powerpoint presentations, and Q&A’s later, I think a 2026 Olympic bid might.be the best possible thing that could happen to this city.
How did I get from No Can Do Calgary, to Yes?
Let’s revisit a few highlights from the past eight crazy weeks.
- The IOC has changed its tune, thanks to Agenda 2020.
That’s the name of New IOC, the one where cities get rewarded for not building white elephant venues, where million dollar plus application fees get waived (we’ve paid zero so far), where the IOC flies themselves to potential host cities, and where the IOC kicks in a cool billion to help defray costs. The first Games bid to be conducted under Agenda 2020 guidelines? The 2026 Winter Games bid.
If any single municipal entity is competitive under Agenda 2020, it’s Calgary, where 87% of the venues are already built, there’s a huge volunteer tradition and memories remain warm about 1988 and Vancouver 2010.
- The City of Calgary — or any politicians — won’t be the ones calling the shots.
No elected politicians will. The event is organized by an organization staffed by people with hundreds of years of experience organizing big events. (If the city decides to cut a deal with the Flames to build a new event centre in conjunction with an Olympic bid, that’s a city thing, not an Olympic thing — and a thing that makes even more sense with an Olympic bid in the hopper than without).
- People want a new Flames arena, and are upset the proposal doesn’t include one.
The IOC mandates that venues must be available to the public, after the Games closes. A new Flames arena won’t be, so it’s not part of the bid. However, if there’s a new arena built, that’s a value add to any Olympic bid — and the price to host the Olympics goes even lower (with the expectation that a mid-sized arena will be included in the design for the new event centre). A new event centre, as well as an entertainment and shopping district, in Victoria Park, to replace a five decade old Saddledome? I’d vote yes on that one, too.
- Olympics always cost more than planners think it’s going to cost.
Can’t argue there — so the Calgary bid includes $1.1 billion in contingencies. The actual line items themselves will cost around $4 billion. John Furlong, who ran the Vancouver 2010 Games, said, “If you’d handed me that budget, I would have slipped out the back door and said ‘thank you very much. I’m on my way,”‘ Furlong told The Canadian Press on Friday, November 1. “I have never seen a budget that has this much contingency in it. I think that’s a direct learning from Vancouver.” Who’s a more reliable narrator and interpreter of a proposed winter Olympic budget than John Furlong?
- The Cultural Olympiad could be a boom for Calgary, and Canadian artists.
Vancouver leveraged $20 million into $100 million. (“If I thought an Olympic bid would jeopardize Calgary’s arts and culture funding, I wouldn’t go near it with a 10 foot pole!” said Calgary Arts Development CEO Patti Pon at an October event at the Centre for Newcomers).
The Cultural Olympiad benefits artists as well as arts companies, often in career-transforming ways.
Calgarian composer Dave Pierce won an Emmy for his musical score of the Opening and Closing ceremonies at Vancouver in 2010. Alberta Ballet Artistic Director Jean Grand Maitre choreographed the same.
Back in 1988, a new play festival was launched as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It became ATP PlayRites Festival. Right around the same time, in 1985, a new arts centre opened downtown, with seven new venues, including Jack Singer Hall.
A new quirky Alberta country punk singer performed at Calgary in 1988, named kd lang.
A young Calgary girl, like Gary Silberg, performed in the Opening Ceremonies, where she got hooked on performing. Her name was Leslie Fiest.
In 2010, Vertigo Artistic Director Craig Hall ran a tiny Vancouver independent theatre company called Rumble that received a commission to be part of HIVE, a performance cabaret that was a huge hit — and paved the way for Hall to book a directing gig at the Shaw Festival, and eventually, to become a Calgary cultural mainstay, with a bright career ahead of him.
How many Calgary artists and arts companies might that happen for in 2026?
Or, as Patti Pon puts it: “If not this (idea), then what?”
- Paralympics could transform Calgary’s accessibility. In London, disability employment rose to 45% following 2012. According to para athlete Patrick Jarvis, 22,000 access ramps were added to London black cabs, creating a city that’s more accessible than ever for differently abled, mothers and their strollers, and seniors and their walkers.
“People need to think about what their definition of legacy is,” Jarvis said, that day. “It’s really to something that is left behind.
“It can be positive,” he added. “That could be negative. It could be tangible. It could be intangible.”
“You hear people talk about how the Olympic Games have changed people’s lives,” he added.
“The Paralympic Games have saved people’s lives.”
- 2,200 jobs a year created between now and 2026, along with thousands of affordable and attainable housing units and opportunities to engage youth. Construction jobs, project management jobs, eventually tourism jobs as the Games grow closer — lots of jobs for a city with the highest unemployment rate of any major population centre in Canada. It also has the potential to offer an opportunity for Calgarians to reinvent their city to people from around the world. The United Way’s COO, Beth Gignac, is working to import a program started in Iceland, that would offer young people free access to arts, sports and recereational facilities, in effort to kick start physical and cultural literacy into a generation of young people looking for purpose.
“They had a terrible problem in Iceland with youth,” she said, at a TransAlta event October 22. “Their drug rates were going through the roof. All kinds of bad things were happening, and they said, what could happen if we could provide access to sport, culture and recreation activities — for free?
“They … have seen a dramatic reduction in all of these activities around drug use, addiction, and suicides,” she said, describing the results of the project as “phenomenal.”
“We at United Way have been looking at this as a model and asking, what could happen if we could try that…even if it was only in one neighbourhood in Calgary?”
- Newcomers and people of colour are struggling to see themselves in there.
At a Centre for Newcomers meeting, various stakeholders watched what was meant to be an inspirational video of past Olympics thrills and spills, tears and hugs, but because it was completely devoid of diversity of any kind, it had completely the opposite effect — all of which was pointed out by Calgary Arts Development CEO Patti Pon.
“If I’m going to see that video,” she said, “I want to see how a newcomer can be an Olympic athlete in 2026!”
Added Centre for Newcomer CEO Anila Lee Yuen, whose family attended the 1988 Winter Games. (They missed out on figure skating finals, but scored tickets to see ski jumping and saw Eddie the Eagle).
“(The (video’s) slogan is Your team. Your hometown,” she said. “But I didn’t see me. I didn’t see my team members. I didn’t see my family, my friends. I didn’t see me at all.”
The takeaway: newcomers want to be involved, whether it’s as athletes, or volunteers or spectators. Or faces in a well-meaning uplifting video!)
- 1988 changed Calgary, for the better.
Calgarians Hamish Ferguson and his wife Frances were there. “The opera brought in the Houston Opera to do Porgy and Bess,” he said. “We bought season tickets, just to make sure we’d see it. Every arts company did something special. It was an amazing time.” They saw a lot of Olympic events too, including the figure skating finals won by Katarina Witt. “You used to have clip an application out of the newspaper in the morning, then mail in your application for tickets,” Hamish said. “We used to run to the post office first thing in the morning, with our applications, and send them in. Unbelievably, we got every ticket we applied for. Two thousand bucks worth!”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity. This was a small western Canadian city the first time we did it. The Olympics changed the city. It literally changed the way we thought about what was possible.”
- The Indigenous Community is all in the Olympics. Are the Olympics all in on the Indigenous community?
This time around, if the 2026 Winter Games are going to be hosted on Treaty territory, it only seems fair and logical, that the Treaty 7 tribes — and Indigenous communities from across the continent — have more input into the production than ever before.
Making Treaty 7 Artistic Director Justin Manyfingers, who has danced with the Canadian Opera Company at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and directed Making Treaty 7 at the Jubilee, has a suggestion: “An Indigenous person should direct the Opening and Closing ceremonies,” he said. “I want to do it. Put that in your blog!”
Rilee ManyBears is 23, and won the gold medal in the 8km men’s at the 2015 World Indigenous Games. That might have been a summer sport, but ManyBears thinks he can pick up a winter sport by 2026 and represent his community as an Olympic athlete.
“We want First Nations athletes at the Games,” ManyBears said. “It doesn’t matter how big your goal is, you have to go after it.” (Particularly in the city with a highway named after Deerfoot).
Elder Vincent Yellow Old Woman looks ahead to 2026, and what he sees is an opportunity for young Indigenous people everywhere to see an opportunity that might just change the way they think of what’s possible, sort of the same way the whole city of Calgary did after 1988.
“I want that 14-year-old First Nations kid in Northern Quebec watching the Opening Ceremonies, seeing First Nations people who are Olympic athletes,” Yellow Old Woman said.
“I want him to think, I can do that,” he added.
“I want him to see a champion!”