By Stephen Hunt
One of the best things about the events taking place around the possibility of a 2026 Games bid has been the opportunity for a wide range of people to sit and talk to each other.
A Games bid campaign like this one — which had a near-death experience Wednesday at City Hall — is unlike any other political experience I’ve ever seen.
There are money people, sports people, corporate people, tourism people, downtown people, yes people, no people, older people (they’re who tend to be ‘No’ and also who tend to show up!), and younger people (Yes voters who tend not to vote), students and private
club members, all going out and trying to learn enough to understand whether or not this thing of ours is worth doing.
For a very frightening weekend, the entire process was hijacked by politicians, tip toeing to the abyss, like extreme Instagrammers dangling dangerously close to a perilous cliff’s edge — all in the pursuit of a few more likes.
It was terrifying, theatrical, exasperating, and spellbinding all at once, as the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and people’s loyalties and perspectives kept shifting from one hour to the next.
What’s it’s been — what it remains — is the big, messy, gumbo that is the exercise of democracy in action.
Fighting back against despair
Lost among it all most days are the social agencies, non-profits filled with people fighting back against poverty, despair, homelessness, addiction, and hunger.
Last Monday — before the huge second act twist on the weekend — a number of United Way volunteers from the corporate sector sat in on an information session at TransAlta, and listened to Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran outline the bid co’s vision for hosting.
While the numbers are always the focus of these things, the one that caught the most attention Monday was 2,600.
That’s the number of Calgary housing units that will be built to house athletes, and later become affordable and attainable housing, with a component of that including Indigenous housing.
Another notable number not in any bid presentation: 15,000.
That’s the number of affordable housing units Calgary — which has the lowest stock of affordable housing in the country — needs.
2,600 doesn’t cover it, but chips away at it — in the spirit of what Mary Moran likes to say, which is “hosting the Games won’t solve all our problems, but can serve as a catalyst to begin to deal with some of them.”
It’s a global event that might jump start a hundred tiny local initiatives.
One of those was articulated by United Way Chief Operating Officer Beth Gignac, following the presentation. The United Way is really the feeder system for more than 100 social service agencies in the city, and one that connects those agencies to the rest of the world. According to Gignac, United Way-supported agencies in Calgary support 200,000 people in need, in a variety of endeavors — but one has caught their attention, as a way to incorporate sport, culture and recreation with a focus on children’s mental health.
The inspiration for the program comes from Iceland, she said. “They had a terrible problem in Iceland with youth,” she said. “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?”
The Icelandic government launched a program that subsidized access to cultural events, sports and recreational facilities for youth in the country, she said. “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, or test that (idea)?”
“Even if it was only in one neighbourhood in Calgary, in the next couple years, to tap into that, to look into that.”
‘What does a whole person need?’
At every event around the city, the question usually goes out to the audience: what can the Olympics do for your life?
Sometimes, the answers are individual. Sometimes, they’re institutional. And sometimes, like that Monday morning at TransAlta, they’re municipal — vast, wide, and ambitious.
Maybe Olympic bids can’t solve every problem a city has, which is certainly true — but if it gets people out of bed at the crack of dawn on a Monday in late October to talk about how to get young kids engaged and activated by life, what’s not to like Seeing a bunch of social innovators sloshing down Starbucks at 8 in the morning, talking about how to give Calgary its mojo back, is almost as inspiring as seeing Virtue and Moir on top of a podium in Pyeong Chang.
“What Iceland did,” Gignac said, “was bucket up all those activities and ask, what does a whole person need in order to be a whole person?”