BidWeek: Why Is It Wrong For Mayor Nenshi To Champion The Calgary 2026 Olympic Bid?

By Robert Livingstone

BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – The decision by Calgary’s City Council to continue exploring the prospect of bidding for the Olympic Winter Games in 2026 must have come with great relief to International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executives at their Lausanne headquarters in Switzerland Monday.

But wait, much of the IOC are in Bangkok, Thailand this week attending the SportAccord Convention – the biggest international sports meeting on the annual calendar, attended by sport federations, national Olympic committees, rights holders, organizing committees, cities, press and media, businesses and other organizations involved in the development of sport.

You know who else is there?  Two delegates of the Calgary Sport Tourism Authority, the CEO of the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance (CSTA) – and two people from Edmonton Events.  And, their teams.

These organizations rely, in part, on government funding to attract sports events to Canadian cities and to market Canada as a sport destination internationally.  Statistics Canada reported that sports tourism brings in CAD $6.5 billion (USD $5.2 billion) annually to Canada.

This year the CSTA is the lead partner of the TEAM Canada exhibition booth that includes delegates not only from Calgary and Edmonton, but also from five other municipalities across the country.  They are considered a Bronze Partner, meaning the team has invested a significant amount of money for additional exposure to international sports bigwigs.

I’ve been to several of these SportAccord conventions in the past, and TEAM Canada always has a prominent presence at the venue, and on the social calendar.  That includes the requisite “wining and dining” event, and for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve attended a few of them.

This year’s event is occurring as I’m about to file this column, and all guests are receiving the iconic Team Canada red Olympic mittens.  I’m sure they’re discussing the Calgary 2026 bid as I type.

SportAccord Convention 2018 in Bangkok, Thailand (SportAccord Photo)

As the CSTA puts it in a press release “The TEAM Canada reception has become a highly anticipated and highly attended event on the SportAccord schedule, and provides the delegation with significant relationship building and awareness generating momentum.”

By now, those who are off-put by costly pandering to Olympic elite are probably seething as they read.

So why am I telling you this?  Because sport is business, and the development of sport provides not only a cultural boost for a nation, but also helps form international bonds and relationships with many other lasting benefits.

And that’s why it’s important that the Calgary City Council has given itself, and its city, more time to investigate the opportunity – which it most certainly is.  Are the 2026 Olympic Winter Games the right fit for Calgary, and at the right time?  Now, they’ll have a chance to find out.

Many of you probably weren’t aware of the SportAccord Convention, and the investment of both public and private money to lure sport events to Canada.  It isn’t exactly under the public microscope, but is a critical part of Canada’s thriving sports tourism industry.

The Winter Olympics is the equivalent to holding 15 major World Championships simultaneously, so it should demand more attention.  And more importantly it should be looked at as a business opportunity, one earned incrementally in part by the team in booth 78 at the Bangkok Convention Center.

So much more than the “two-week party” the naysayers claim, the Games bring years of test events, Olympic meetings, education, volunteer recruitment, post-Games world championships and many other events that help fuel the local economy.

So it needs a hard look.

Councillor Shane Keating’s last ditch effort to resuscitate the bid this week is exactly the right strategy to move the project forward to a decision everyone can be comfortable with.

It was in this space last week that I mentioned lack of City Council representation on the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC) team could have been the project’s fatal flaw.  Indeed, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi admitted this week that he regretted the omission.

With the disconnect between Council, CBEC and by extension the IOC, an adversarial relationship was formed with misinformation, mistrust and missteps as the result.  Not exactly the qualities of an Olympic team.

Why is it okay to be a strong opponent of the project, but it’s deemed not appropriate to promote the opportunity.

Keating’s motion to form a special subcommittee comprised of four Council members along with the Mayor is exactly the strategy that should have been implemented months ago.  But fortunately, it will work now as well, and that team can work more closely with the project team, the public consultation group and perhaps connect with the IOC through its dialogue phase.

Though some Councilors want the Mayor excluded from the group, it will be through his leadership that the project gets the attentions it needs.

Councilor Druh Farrell asked, after the motion to form the subcommittee was passed, that bid opponents be included on the subcommittee.  I think that goes without saying, the project needs to be scrutinized from all perspectives.

But what I don’t understand is this:  It seems everyone on council, including the Mayor, is afraid to admit they support the Olympic bid, and that they’ll be a champion for the project.  Why is this?  Why is it okay to be a strong opponent of the project, but it’s deemed not appropriate to promote the opportunity.

Councilor Sean Chu last week shouted “everyone knows you want an Olympics” in frustration to Mayor Nenshi during a Council debate, but this week the Mayor said he thought it might be inappropriate to champion the cause ahead of the plebiscite.

When Vancouver bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics newly-elected Mayor Larry Campbell pushed for a plebiscite, yet he clearly supported the bid and was sure the public would deliver a verdict of ‘yes’.

Though the ‘yes’ campaign was led by business leaders, Mayor Campbell did some campaigning of his own and he told me in a 2003 interview ahead of the vote that the bid would certainly prevail.  He went on for minutes, as the biggest cheerleader for Vancouver 2010.  ‘Yes’ won with 64 percent of the votes.

Last year for the 2024, then 2028 Summer Games Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (who, by the way, is now being touted as the possible next Democratic nominee for U.S. President) was integral in the bid throughout the process, from the moment he was elected Mayor in 2013 until the IOC awarded the Games last September.  He championed the cause, navigated the complexities of government and legislative approvals by building partnerships, attended all meetings – including those at the Rio 2016 Olympics and was among those who conceived the plan for an historic double-allocation with the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Garcetti found opportunity, changed the contract with the IOC and won improved concessions in the final deal – making it work for his city.  It didn’t seem inappropriate at all.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks to the press in May, 2017 (GamesBids Photo)

If Mayor Nenshi truly believes that the Games will benefit the city, he should go all in.  Instead of looking to see if there is opportunity, he should try to create opportunity.  The IOC, for the first time in decades, is looking for a true partnership and needs real leadership.

If, however, the Mayor has his doubts or is unwilling to risk the political capital ahead of a plebiscite – well then that is an entirely different message he has yet to deliver.

On Monday Councilor Peter Demong’s name came up as a potential Chair of the new subcommittee.  As critic of the bid, the other risk-averse Councilors will trust him to examine the process with greater scrutiny.  But really, this should be the Mayor’s job.

The other Councilors will surely disagree, but if this bid is to move forward with any competitive edge on the international stage – the proper leadership should be fully engaged at the outset.

Ah, but this isn’t a bid yet, you say.  We’re still figuring it out, you add.

That’s true, I’ll say.  If your intent is to find the flaws, and tear apart the bid – then appoint an opponent to guide the divisive, splintered group in that direction.  But if that’s the case, you should have just killed the bid on the floor Monday.  If the bid is borne of mistrust and lack of leadership, it will limp onto the international stage.

But if your motives are to prove that the opportunity is real or to create something of value for the city, and then to seize it – Nenshi needs to lead.

Checks and balances will remain in place, Councilors can take an off-ramp in June, and ultimately the public will decide in a plebiscite later this year.  Why is it so wrong for a Mayor to support something?

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil