BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – It’s a runaway freight train, and the track doesn’t seem to end.
Taxpayers of cities who are told that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has changed, that the new reforms dubbed “Olympic Agenda 2020” and the “New Norm” make hosting great again, don’t want to hear about it. They don’t care.
They just don’t believe it.
On Tuesday another city was added to that list. But this time it was worse, much worse. It wasn’t a city in Europe.
Referendums over big expenditures in many European countries are mandatory, and since 2013 when Oslo, Norway voters approved the 2022 bid – eight straight public bid votes have failed.
All in Europe. But now bid rejection has gone intercontinental.
On Tuesday Calgary voters said, in what seemed to be one loud voice – NO.
Enough of the reforms, enough of the promises, enough is enough, they said. Show us results and check back in a few years.
A Canadian city has never voted against an Olympic bid when given the opportunity, ever. Both Quebec City and Vancouver gave their constituents a chance to weigh-in on 2010 bids and both easily won the ‘yes’ vote.
Across North America, the only other bid to face a plebiscite was Salt Lake City for the 1998 Winter Games. It was a ‘yes’. Denver’s famous rejection of the 1976 Winter Games came several months after the bid had ended and the city had already been awarded the Games.
A loss in Calgary strikes at the heart of everything IOC President Thomas Bach has tried to achieve with Agenda 2020, the set of cost-cutting reforms that are designed to make the Winter Olympics appealing to potential host cities once again.
Calgary was practically the poster-child.
The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary were phenomenally successful, incredibly memorable, and left physical and human legacies that have helped drive the Winter Olympics internationally in all the years since.
There was the Jamaican Bobsleigh team that created an unexpected legacy for the small Caribbean nation. There was Eddie the Eagle who used ski jumping to inspire anyone with dreams – no matter how unlikely.
There was even the cringeful yet addictive and memorable ski ballet that was staged as a demonstration sport at those Games.
Agenda 2020 isn’t working. It has become the punchline of a Twitter post.
The Alberta city became a winter sports hub and training grounds for all of Canada, and much of the world. Canada didn’t win a single gold medal at those Games, but has dominated the Winter Olympics medal table in the Games since by training at the wealth of facilities left as a legacy.
The 1988 Games even left a financial surplus that has been used to maintain the venues that remained. Calgary has leveraged those facilities to host more than 220 World Cups and World Championship events.
Those ’88 Games have remained part of the fabric of the city, a component of its economy and culture.
And the human legacy is literal, so many people who volunteered, watched, competed or worked at those Games still live in the city – still remember the experience and how it enriched them each individually. Some are even now employed in the sport sector.
The IOC’s Agenda 2020 was written with a city like Calgary in mind. Most venues in the city already built, others available regionally – and construction minimal. All in a traditional winter sport setting.
Calgary even planned to stage ski jumping in Whistler, a legacy of the Vancouver 2010 Games that, of the recent Winter Games, was the most financially viable.
And Calgarians know, or at least have been told, that all of these 1988 benefits could end soon if investment in venue refurbishments and upgrades don’t happen soon. That kind of investment without an Olympics would be far more costly without government partner contributions. Just this year the ski jump towers in Calgary were scheduled for demolition because they have fallen out of international competition standards and maintenance has become a pointless burden.
So what went so wrong?
On July 2, 2003 thousands of Canadians dressed in red jammed into Vancouver’s B.C. Place stadium to see then IOC President Jacques Rogge award that city the 2010 Winter Games in a tight race that saw PyeongChang place a close second and Salzburg in Austria third.
A study in contrasts. In 2003, #Vancouver2010 wins Olympic bid in tight race – thousands at B.C. Place stadium erupt in cheers. In 2026, #Calgary2026 fights for those people to allow them to bid – watch video: https://t.co/EuQofKl81m
— Robert Livingstone (@enotsgnivil) November 13, 2018
On the announcement watched on the big screen, cheers and jubilation erupted in the stadium and fans partied late into the night. The enthusiasm sustained right until the final moment of the Games when Sidney Crosby of Canada’s ice hockey team scored the golden overtime goal.
On Tuesday, the Calgary 2026 Olympic bid team couldn’t convince more than half of the voters to even agree to bid.
56.4 percent of voters said ‘no.’ 171,750 people said ‘no.’
It was the group of No Calgary Olympics supporters at a bar who rose to their feet and cheered for an announcement that the city would do… nothing.
It’s that bad.
The truth is, the IOC really has changed. The bid process in completely different than it was in those days of overspending. Cities are encouraged to spend less and the IOC is willing to pitch in and help make that happen. They really, really are.
And yes, they can do even more.
But it won’t matter. The IOC’s past culture of excess has made the Olympic brand toxic. Critics, who have lost all trust in the movement, are now lumping other Olympic issues into the same bid equation such as the Russian doping scandal and IOC member corruption.
For potential Calgary ‘yes’ voters, who already expected that there would be cost over runs, corruption and perhaps even newer headaches, there was a need to win legacy and other benefits to offset their risk. There was no way they were going take a tax hit and not get an NHL arena, a field house, an airport link – and they certainly weren’t going to give up their beloved Olympic hockey or curling matches to Edmonton.
So, there was no way that Calgary 2026 was going to be the low cost and efficient Agenda 2020 model that the IOC was looking for.
But, both Calgary 2026 and the IOC continued to parade with that Agenda 2020 banner, even for a CAD $5.2 billion bid.
In Calgary, much of the rhetoric spewed out in social media by the ‘no’ forces and some civic leaders was either inaccurate, or based on old data. Tweets of old articles, some from seemingly legitimate sources – were incorrect. Misstatements about the IOC’s host city contract were perpetuated on Facebook and other platforms, even though the accurate current version of the document has been published and available freely online for months.
Voters clung to it because It was information they knew had been true – or had come from respected sources, which was better than the information they didn’t know they could trust.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, in another shout out to this very space, said after the vote “yet again, GamesBids.com this week said that this is the most transparent, and accessible bid, ever in Olympic history.”
Of course, I believe that to be true (I’m not sure I wrote the “accessible” part, though) – and it’s a breakthrough for the bid process. But it doesn’t matter.
Really, none of that matters. If the IOC can’t rebuild its credibility, the message of Agenda 2020 is worthless and stakeholders will form their own opinions.
It doesn’t seem like Stockholm’s 2026 is going to secure the required government support, with the deadline two months away. So it may be up to Italy to bail out the IOC.
But already the joint Milano-Cortina project is pushing back against Agenda 2020 – insisting that they make major upgrades to their 1956-era sliding track in Cortina for use in 2026. The IOC, in an evaluation report published last month, urged the bid to propose existing facilities in Innsbruck or St. Moritz instead, as a less expensive and lower risk option.
They also told PyeongChang not to build a sliding track for the 2018 Games, and now one sits unused in the tiny Korean resort village.
You can’t sell what a city doesn’t want.
Agenda 2020 isn’t working. It has become the punchline of a Twitter post.
It’s time for the IOC to change everything.
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.