They’re more than just Games.
Thursday, Calgary 2026 hosted a pair of town hall meetings in the lobby of Jack Singer Hall, in Arts Commons, the first opportunity the public had to be debriefed on the city’s potential bid to host the 2026 Olympics and Paralympics.
The lunch time town hall was well-attended by both the public and the local media. Over 160 showed up. Conversation was lively. Questions were thoughtful and well-informed.
It felt like a room full of good listeners.
At the media scrum afterward, reporters grilled Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran hard about the numbers, after a CBC report that City Hall possessed a set of numbers higher than the ones Moran talked about during the town hall.
Who wants to bet that isn’t the last time Moran hears that set of questions?
The night time session was drowsier. Half as many showed up on a gloomy September night that felt more like November than the tail end of summer, to talk about what a Calgary Games bid might look like, although those that did were well-informed, thoughtful and positive — well, positive with a few reservations.
There was the woman dismayed by the announcement that Russia would suffer no consequences despite their systematic cheating at the 2014 Games in Sochi.
There was the questions about how to convince Calgarians, on November 13, to vote Yes in the plebiscite, in order to get into a long term relationship with the IOC — “the elephant in the room,” being the quote of the day, at both sessions.
At both sessions, there were eagle-eyed budget skeptics, who wanted to know how Calgary’s security costs could possibly be $610 million, when Vancouver’s 2010 security costs were over $900 million. (Hint: no waterfronts to patrol).
More of the crowd was a Yes bunch than a No bunch, but there were also people like IT consultant Gary Silberg, who was part of the Opening Ceremonies in 1988, has kids who are athletes, and just generally seemed like the kind of guy who would be all in — but isn’t.
“I’m generally leaning against it,” he said, in a media scrum after the afternoon session, when the TV cameras sought him out.
He acknowledged that Calgary2026 has presented a pretty thorough budget — it’s got around 40,000 line items! — that has been vetted by a number of different stakeholders.
But didn’t Sochi cost Putin $50 billion?
“It’s hard to evaluate, when you hear about other games going so much over budget,” he said. “My biggest concern is the amount of money being spent.”
“It’s not 1988,” he added. “(I’m concerned about) the cost of security. The IOC — I don’t really understand how the IOC works. Even though they give a lot of money back (to the host city — $750 million U.S.) — it seems like they (also) keep a lot of money.
“I don’t know where all that money goes.”
Jack Singer Hall build inspired by ‘88 Games
I watched the afternoon session from the mezzanine level of the Jack Singer Hall, looking down on the lobby, at a couple hundred Calgarians having a smart, thoughtful conversation about a big decision looming for the city’s future — all of it taking place in a venue that exists largely because we hosted the 1988 Games.
Arts Commons wasn’t part of the 1988 Olympics bid build, but it was opened in 1985, so you could easily say it was inspired by winning the 1988 bid (which inspired a lot of donors to help get it built, thanks in large part to the efforts of the amazing trio of Vera Swanson, Martha Cohen and Sandra LeBlanc).
There was an Olympic cultural festival to program, which resulted in a Montreal theatre guy, Bob White, moving to Calgary to create a festival that featured new plays, by Canadian playwrights.
That cultural festival — which drew 1.25 million visitors 30 years ago — eventually morphed into the ATP Enbridge PlayRites Festival. The theatre became renowned for developing and producing world premieres of Canadian playwrights work, including stuff like Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Mary’s Wedding and plays by Eugene Stickland, Mieko Ouchi, and more recently, Ghost River Theatre, Bruce Horak, Rebecca Northan and over a hundred others.
For decades, theatre people from all over North America flew to Calgary in winter, to watch plays, and drink wine, and eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels on Blitz weekend.
White — who now is in charge of developing new work at the Stratford Festival — spoke to me for a story in the Herald, when ATP announced it was ending the PlayRites Festival a few years ago, after close to three decades.
“When I came out there in 1987 for the pilot festival, what was shocking about ATP and (then AD Michael) Dobbins’ idea for it was there was no new work being done in Calgary at all,” he said. “The Rabbits were in the very early stages of doing the Big Secret Festival (which became the High Performance Rodeo) and their work, and that was it – it was sort of like Calgary had missed the whole movement that was (then) going on across the country.”
Sure, there was a bit of a soft crowd Thursday night in the Jack Singer lobby. But maybe that’s because they had tickets down the hall, to see Theatre Calgary’s world premiere production of Calgary playwright Tara Beagan’s Honour Beat at the Max Bell Theatre.
Or maybe they had tickets to see ATP’s production of former Calgarian Kate Hennig’s sensational historical dramedy, The Virgin Trial.
Or tickets across the street to see Vertigo’s world premiere presentation of The Thin Man.
Yes, there are Games. But over the long run, there are plenty of examples of culture, education and sustainability that hosting the Games can bring to a city.
The rub is that a lot of that stuff becomes so much a part of our everyday lives that eventually, we forget they were once launched by a 50 day party.
Bidco CEO Mary Moran has been selling Calgary as a destination for business and talent to take a chance on for a decade now, and when she talks about that pitch, you kind of get the feeling she knows of what she speaks.
You can also get the sense that adding, ‘we’re hosting the 2026 Games’ to the pitch to the Amazon.coms of the world gets her juices flowing.
(It’s kind of the municipal equivalent of a movie producer saying “we have The Rock attached” to their latest movie project).
“We don’t have the right talent for the new economy,” she said Thursday, repeating one of the reasons why Amazon dropped Calgary as a possible site of Amazon 2.0.
“We still need to round out our talent. Companies came (to Calgary) post ‘88. More importantly, people came.”
People still come, but those tech-savvy, high-mobility millenials with their choice of global, liveable cities?
Maybe not so much as they used to.
“We have to change,” Moran said. “We have to evolve.
“Why not use the Games to put a spotlight on what we can do?”