More than 56 percent of voters across Calgary voted against a proposed 2026 Olympic Winter Games bid Tuesday, a result that will likely spell the end of the city’s pursuit to host its second edition of the Olympics, and first Paralympic Games.
Over 300,000 votes were cast in the standalone plebiscite, a number considered to represent a reasonable turnout in the city. The final unofficial count had 56.4 percent rejecting the bid with 43.6 in favour.
The plebiscite is non-binding, but the federal and provincial offers to fund the project were conditional on a majority ‘yes’ vote supporting the bid. If the city were to move ahead it would have to do so without the promised CAD $2.152 billion (USD $1.63 billion) from its government partners.
Without constituent and government financial support, the bid is certain to be voted down at a City Council meeting set to discuss the issue on Monday.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said “The people have spoken in big numbers, and have spoken clearly.”
When asked if the bid is dead, the Mayor said “Yeah, it’s very clear.”
The results, announced soon after polls closed Tuesday, bring to an end the contentious debate that has consumed many Calgarians in recent weeks.
The Mayor refused to accept the notion that the debate was divisive for the city, instead insisting that “what we had was passionate people talking about the future of their community.”
The grass-roots organization ‘No Calgary Olympics’ represented the campaign against the bid and operated on a shoestring budget. Inspired by social media techniques and rhetoric first used by ‘No Boston Olympics’ to end the American city’s 2024 Olympic bid, the Calgary counterpart successfully steered the online conversation in its favor.
No Calgary Olympics spokesperson Erin Waite told GamesBids.com Monday “The entire Olympic movement has strayed far from being about sport and instead has layered on excessive pageantry and mega-event attributes that further contribute to cost for the host city.”
“All of these factors, beyond changes outlined in Agenda 2020, contribute to the Olympic movement being unappealing for a potential host city.”
The ‘yes’ side was spearheaded by the ‘Yes Calgary 2026″ organization with private sources of funds – enough to mount a slick, organized campaign. Various special interest groups that stand to benefit from the Games lent voices to the cause.
Unofficial #yycvote results for Vote 2018:
304,774 Ballots Cast
132,832 FOR Calgary hosting (43.6%)
171,750 AGAINST Calgary hosting (56.4%)
— City of Calgary (@cityofcalgary) November 14, 2018
The Calgary 2026 BidCo invested CAD $1.4 million in paid advertising to promote the project. A total of over CAD $30 million dollars was budgeted to fund the bid up until the International Olympic Committee (IOC) host city election that was originally planned for September 2019 but later moved up to June.
Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran said in a statement “This all began with great promise: a chance to bring the Olympics and Paralympics home to Calgary and Canada. A chance to re-establish our city on the world stage – put us back on the map.”
“We did it in ’88 – a Games legendary for warmth and welcome, new global prominence, economic growth, renewed civic pride and lasting legacies… and we were ready to do it again, even better.”
The negative result marks the ninth straight time an Olympic bid plebiscite or referendum supported a bid since 55 percent of Oslo, Norway voters backed a 2022 Winter Games bid in 2013. Oslo later dropped out of that race due to a loss of government support and then eight straight referendums across Europe failed, including Sion, Switzerland’s 2026 entry earlier this year.
Calgary has become the first Canadian city to reject an Olympic bid.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in a statement to GamesBids.com said the result “comes as no surprise following the political discussions and uncertainties right up until the last few days.”
“It is disappointing that the arguments about the sporting, social and long-term benefits of hosting the Olympic Games did not sway the vote.”
The bid survived City Council’s axe on October 31 after an 11th hour plan was confirmed among the three levels of government to ensure the budget would be funded, and with a CAD $1.1 billion contingency fund and $200 million insurance policy.
But the vote was roughly split and the 8-7 vote to end the bid failed to reach a super-majority of 10 votes. Councillors remained divided in campaigning ahead of the plebiscite causing further conflict among constituents.
The total project would require CAD $5.2 billion (USD $3.93 billion) of both public and private funds. The IOC is expected to contribute cash and in-kind services amounting to USD $925 million to the winning city.
The three government partners kicked in a total of about CAD $30 million to run the Calgary 2026 campaign that was set to finance operations until the IOC election in June.
Rival bids include Stockholm and a joint Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo project from Italy. The Swedish Capital is still seeking elusive government support for its bid to host the first Winter Olympic in the nation, and there are doubts that it will come before the January deadline.
Italy’s project will need to rely on regional funding after the national government confirmed that it will not provide any financial support for the Games. IOC President Thomas Bach has confirmed the regional arrangement meets IOC requirements.
If none of the three cities survive until the end of the race, the IOC has said that it has no plan B to fill the gap. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), however, has launched a domestic Winter Games bid process for a “future Winter Games” and will elect a winner before the end of December.
An evaluation team is set to visit front runner Salt Lake City Wednesday, and could be positioned for 2026 if necessary. Denver is the only other city in the running after Reno-Tahoe dropped from the race Monday.
A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.