BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – I spent much of Tuesday watching a live stream of the Calgary City Council Priorities and Finance Committee Meeting, unusual for a non-Calgarian.
I know, sounds exciting – right? Five hours of mostly mind-numbing politically-bent dialogue with just a few minutes of interesting banter, and a single conclusion. The conclusion Tuesday? Councillors will likely kill Calgary’s 2026 Olympic Winter Games bid when they vote whether to continue pursuing the opportunity next week.
It seems like an improbable outcome for the city after a poll last week revealed that 92 percent want the Games to return after a 38-year absence. Ninety-two percent, who would welcome the event with open arms, and the condition that the Games are privately funded with no financial risk to them.
Even so, 84 percent still believe the Games will boost the economy of the Province of Alberta and 56 percent ultimately think the opportunity outweighs the risks of hosting the Games.
Dropping the campaign seems like an unlikely decision from a city that has such high regard for its previous experience hosting the 1988 Games, with volunteers and spectators from thirty years ago still glowing when they tell younger generations about the memorable event.
Indeed, along with the intangible and human legacies of those Games, there are venue legacies that have helped define the city for years – and, in fact, have given the city the opportunity it is presented with today. Calgary has become Canada’s Winter Sports hub, a beacon to the world as it attracts elite international athletes to train and compete – something that helps drive tourism in the city – and civic pride
The Province was proud as it watched 54 of its athletes compete for Gold in PyeongChang this year.
Potentially letting go of this opportunity must be painful for many involved.
So how could this happen?
How could a bid, after spending CAD $6 million during two years of exploration, after developing thousands of pages of documents representing some of the best project feasibility analyses in Olympic history, after successfully lobbying government partners to fund the project with evidence that the public want to examine the opportunity – how could it be driven to the brink of collapse?
Why would City Council consider denying its constituents the chance to vet the opportunity and have their say, with a public consultation program already planned and a plebiscite in the works and ready to go at the pull of a trigger?
In a word, Trust.
In three words, lack of trust. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should take careful note.
I’ve watched a few of these City Council meetings over the past several months as Calgary has explored its potential bid.
In the more mundane moments as Calgary’s bid crumbled during Tuesday’s five hour debate, I began to focus beyond the issue at hand to instead gain more clarity on the cast behind the decision-making. Like a reality television show (which, I could argue, was exactly what this was) it seemed each Councillor has been cast in a role.
There’s the protagonist Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the Olympic fanboy trying to don the guise of a dispassionate chairman.
Then there are two main antagonists who seem to present as if they were Nenshi’s rebellious teenage children: Free-speaking Councillor Sean Chu, who spins motions in whatever direction gives him the upper-hand, and the youthful Councillor Jeromy Farkas who balks at the status quo and plays victim to political rivals.
I’m getting to the Olympic stuff in a moment, bear with me.
Councillor Jyoti Gondek plays the disciplinarian, at one point scolding the three (by calling a point of order) for failing to maintain a sense of decorum in Chambers as they bickered and demanded apologies from each other. Apparently one had lied.
And finally Councillors Druh Farrell and Diane Colley-Urquhart, who seem to be the most vocal pragmatists among the 15, with the remaining Councillors playing minor supporting roles.
So it occurred to me, this eclectic and conflictive group are truly a representation of everyone – that’s why they’re there, that’s why they were elected.
And with all due respect to the hard-working Councillors who have tried to figure out this Olympic bid puzzle for months – they are confused, misinformed and perhaps misunderstood – and it’s not their fault.
Navigating the intricacies of an Olympic bid is challenging, and often requires some historical perspective to get it right. It’s like no other project that typically hits a municipal agenda.
During Tuesday’s debate Councillors lashed out at many targets – the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC), Provincial officials, a City financial analyst, each other and the IOC. But when it’s all boiled down there’s a single root cause of the opposition, the lack of trust in the IOC.
They don’t trust them. Other than the Mayor, Councillors have had no personal relationship with Olympic officials involved in the process. All they know is what they’ve heard and read from others – often misreported, misinterpreted or outdated facts – often proliferated in social media.
Who could blame any Councillor for voting to distance themselves from this three-headed monster?
At least one, and maybe two will likely throw their hands in the air and join the ‘no’ side Monday – tipping the bid over the edge.
And the IOC is completely missing the mark as it tries to communicate with potential stakeholders, and to convince cities to be partners and host the Olympic Games.
These mistakes occur, and get amplified because the bid process is inherently connected to a culture of mistrust.
Sure, the IOC has developed Olympic Agenda 2020, a questionable set of reforms that most who are beyond arm’s-length from the IOC don’t understand or care to. The 40-point plan is designed, in part, to make bidding for and hosting the Games more efficient. This year a similar initiative, “The New Norm,” was launched to help lower costs by reducing IOC requirements and expectations.
Believe it or not, these initiatives have improved the site selection process and will make hosting less costly. Los Angeles’ 2028 Summer Games is the current “poster child” for the new Games model and they’ll host without building a single permanent venue for the Games, and with no public investment.
But none of that matters if the IOC can’t get its message across. The communications seem like a childhood game of broken telephone.
The IOC relies on its franchisees, the National Olympic Committees (NOC) to represent the Olympic brand at a national level – and to maintain an open dialogue. It also works with international and local media, who in the mainstream often don’t report fully on the complexities of a bid and IOC processes.
But even that has been problematic for the IOC.
“We are very importantly supporting [Calgary] in dealing with their local press,” IOC Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch said in February, adding “we are very well-equipped to help them explain why this is good to them.”
The remarks were seen as manipulative and condescending by City Council, only adding to the mistrust.
In Calgary’s case CBEC was the de facto bid committee that liaised with the IOC, conducted the research, and was charged with reporting back to City Council. If only a City Council member joined the CBEC Board, things may have been a lot different.
Instead there has been a fundamental disconnect between the IOC and City Council, just as there is a complete disconnect between the IOC and the general public – who are often deriving their messages, it seems, from either social media or other dubitable news sources.
It’s easy to misunderstand and resent something you have no access to. So Councillors did the only thing they could do, treat CBEC instead as the adversary, and not the very organization that is working in their interest and completely accountable to Council.
Unlike City Council, CBEC has had access to the IOC through the dialogue phase, and have the opportunity to work creatively with them to come up with solutions that could cut costs, lower risks, and leave a more sustainable legacy. Much of this work is ongoing and all answers are not yet available.
Council members, suspicious of secrecy and dubious motives, questioned CBEC representatives who weren’t really in any position to disagree with their opinions. That alone has led to confusion and misinformation.
I’ve been closely watching Olympic bids for almost 30 years and as a journalist I have had several opportunities to meet with IOC representatives, Olympic bid committee members, politicians, international sport journalists, and recently even representatives of CBEC. I have no special connection with Calgary and I often repeat this investigative process with other cities and other bids around the world.
I’m looking in from the outside.
I’ve seen this Olympic bid learning curve taken on by so many, so often. And it’s hard to get right the first time.
So certainly, mistakes were made. Here are a couple.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting City Council asked that the de facto bid team request a six-month deadline extension from the IOC in order to further vet the project and conduct a proper plebiscite. The answer came back Tuesday from the IOC as a hard ‘no.’
Councillor Farrell later made the argument that the IOC has changed its dates “many times” yet they don’t allow Calgary to request an extension, alluding that negotiations were really one-sided. This is incorrect, yet the CBEC representative was not in any position to correct the Councillor.
Within the IOC’s Olympic Charter, the timing of a bid city election is and has been fixed as occurring at the Session held seven-years prior to the Games – this is for logistical reasons. The IOC has overhauled the bid process this time but they published an initial schedule last year and have yet to change it. While the overall campaign kicked off a little later than usual for this updated cycle, the rest of the dates with respect to guarantees and the final bid book are typical to years past.
Last year CBEC had erroneously indicated that bid books were due to the IOC in the autumn of 2019 and had to later clarify that the date was January – this being the likely source of the confusion. The IOC who had yet to even publish the schedule were certainly not at fault, and the later published date was consistent with past bids.
Then there are social media faux pas. At an April 5 City Council meeting Councillor Colley-Urquhart said “following Twitter is one way to find out what’s going on around here, with this whole Olympic bid process as it’s unfolding.”
Yet later that same day she Tweeted “$30M will be spent over the next 173 days to determine if it’s feasible to bid on the Olympics prior to Oct 3rd when #IOC will decide if they’ll invite #yyc to bid,” a completely incorrect statement as the $30M is in fact the total budget to September 2019, with unused funds recoverable should Calgary not be invited by the IOC. It has been documented several times as such.
I can list dozens of similar innocent errors and miscommunications below, but I’ll spare you.
These mistakes occur, and get amplified because the bid process is inherently connected to a culture of mistrust. And here’s why:
Amid the questioning of lost neutrality, secrecy, misinformation, risks and costs, there was one moment of complete undeniable clarity during Tuesday’s debate that makes much of everything else background noise.
Councillor Gondek said her decision would be made beyond just financial considerations. Paraphrasing her comments made in Council during the debate, she said in an email to me “[The IOC] must be prepared to address their own scandals and demonstrate willingness to end the corruption within the organization.”
“But more importantly,” she said, alluding to Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping program and U.S. Gymnastics sex abuse probe “I expect the IOC to be the steward for ethical and responsible behavior. I need to know that they are addressing allegations of doping and sexual misconduct by sport federations and nations involved in the Olympics.
“I don’t have that confidence yet, and I can’t enter into a relationship with a partner until I have that certainty.”
Councillor Farrell was quick to Tweet a report posted by GamesBids.com about allegations made Monday by South Korean Broadcaster SBS that Olympic sponsor Samsung provided financial incentives to some IOC members to ensure PyeongChang was elected to host the Games in 2018. She called out the IOC on these charges during the debate.
Samsung has denied any wrongdoing.
An IOC spokesperson said regarding an implicated member “Any information about Mr Lamine Diack will be added to his file in the IOC Ethics Commission.”
“As far as his former functions in the IOC are concerned Mr Diack has already lost his honorary membership in 2015.”
The spokesperson failed to address the broader claim that up to 27 current and former members, representing more that 25 percent of the entire Olympic body at the time, are allegedly connected and named in an incriminating email.
Those accusations alone, should they prove to be true, would make anyone think twice before entering into a multi-million dollar bid process.
Cleaning up its own house is something the IOC seems unwilling to do, or even completely address.
Towards the end of the debate, City Hall’s own Financial expert eloquently and clearly explained how Olympic Games operating budgets are typically in line with actual results, and that understated capital construction budgets have led to the significant cost overruns that are commonly reported when the Games are organized.
With so many facilities already built in Calgary, he explained, the economic risks would be mitigated.
This important accurate message, one that the IOC has been working hard to deliver to potential stakeholders for years, hadn’t even had the chance to resonate eardrums before Councillor Farkas chimed in.
Oozing skepticism, he questioned the selection of the expert speaker who was chosen to address Council, a tactic clearly designed to diminish credibility and mute the positive message. In this case, mistrust of the IOC was louder than the message.
Lack of trust in the IOC will continue to manifest in different ways – but most certainly in lost bids for the Olympic Games. Whatever the IOC is doing now is not working, and until the organization can publicly deal with internal issues – change will be impossible.
City Council is set to vote on whether to pull the plug on Calgary’s Olympic dreams during a meeting starting Monday. If the bid ends, a majority of Albertans will be disappointed.