Following is the fifth in a series of open letters to residents of Calgary, and those citizens in other cities who are contemplating Olympic bids.
I feel like this could be our last correspondence.
On Tuesday you’ll finally make up your mind. Whether you’ll dare to chase your dream to host a second Olympic Games, and veer your city onto a different path – or if instead you are more pragmatic and choose a safer, more known route to recover from an economic downturn – its up to you.
You’ll gather around your television or tablet at about 10:00 pm local time to hear a single result, a single number indicating a unified Calgarian voice that either accepts the challenge presented, or dismisses it outright.
I hope you choose well.
If you are reading this, you’re probably also tuned into the social media conversation surrounding your bid There are those dubbed “cheerleaders”, and others identified as “naysayers” – but most people, possibly including you, are neither of these.
Many of you are taxpayers with families, struggling to make a decision that’s best for you and your children – while keeping financial security, quality of life and opportunities in mind.
Hosting an Olympics is an investment, and like many investments there is a risk and reward profile that will have a different appeal for different people. In 1988 the Olympics were a deal that seemed to fit the city, and provided a payout that Calgarians have enjoyed for decades – and continue to benefit from today.
It could be an entirely different story in 2026.
But to be clear, there is a risk to both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
For ‘yes’, there will be a large investment in a project that will take place more than seven years in the future. Change is inevitable, strong organization is essential, and your taxes will increase to support it.
The rewards of a Games are already known and include the continuation of many of the benefits from the 1988 Games, plus additional venues, a new boost to the culture of volunteerism, and a Paralympic Games that will help improve the conditions for both residents and visitors to the city who have special accessibility needs.
To mitigate risk, organizers have included a record-high CAD $1.1 billion contingency fund and an insurance plan that underwriters a willing to provide.
If the Games are not organized in Calgary in 2026, there is risk that existing venues will fall out-of repair or become obsolete with age. They may no longer be used for training purposes, or to host World Cup events that bring dollars to the city on a regular basis.
To maintain the status quo, city investment will be needed to upgrade and maintain the venues, or build new ones, without matching provincial and federal funds. That will require an increase in taxes.
Your decision Tuesday should really come down to whether you want Calgary to continue to be a Winter Sports hub, because either way, an investment will be required for that to happen. I urge you to discover what the benefits are from hosting Olympic teams and regular events in the city, and how much it adds to the city’s economic health.
It’s your call.
But don’t buy the vitriol that social media can sometimes offer. Don’t let those with agendas rob you of your decision, either way.
On that note, here are some facts that set Olympic bids today apart from those in the past.
If Mayor Naheed Nenshi affixes his signature to the host city contract, it obligates the city to stage the Olympic Games according the the conditions set in document, and with the guarantees from government partners and venue providers that are included in the bid plans.
These conditions are all in writing, and available for review today. The IOC, or other governing bodies cannot unilaterally change these, or force the city to modify or build additional venues or infrastructure. In fact, the IOC is now in the habit of working with organizing committees to make plans more efficient, manage budgets and save money where possible.
It was the IOC who told PyeongChang 2018 not to build a new sliding track, though organizers went ahead and constructed the costly venue anyways. It was the IOC that cut requirements from the Tokyo 2020 contract, and urged the city to reduce construction, even as costs increased and scope creep prevailed.
It was the IOC, last month, who urged the Italian 2026 bid to propose a sliding track in Innsbruck, Austria or St. Moritz in Switzerland – instead of spending to refurbish the Eugenio Monti track in Cortina d’Ampezzo that was built for the 1956 Games and now requires major refurbishment.
It was the IOC who last year told Calgary not build an arena, or field house, and should hold some events elsewhere instead.
If costs increase from infrastructure build it will be on Calgary – and not the IOC. Let that be clear.
Also keep in mind that if Calgary does move forward with current plans, the city will build less new venues and infrastructure than any other Winter Games in decades. Calgary will not be Sochi, will not be Vancouver, or Beijing, or Turin, or Salt Lake City or PyeongChang or any of those Games held this century. If you must look to history for the potential for cost overrun, then you must fit Calgary at the bottom of that list – and adjust it for the record-high contingency.
Security costs are unpredictable, especially more than seven years out. Threats change, technologies change, requirements change – but the unchanged mandate of the Canadian government will be to keep people and infrastructure safe, at all costs.
It’s no different than for any other major event including the G7 or G20 conferences, or the Pan Am Games, or the World Cup. The federal government does not send cities security bills, or stop providing services if a threat exists.
The world will change. The high costs for Montreal’s 1976 Games were partly attributable to increased security costs after the Munich 1972 terror attack on Israeli athletes. But Salt Lake City managed security costs even just a few months after the world-changing 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.
Don’t let anyone tell you there is no risk. But also don’t let anyone convince you that the benefits are unattainable, and that somehow the IOC is out to scam the city.
It’s true, there aren’t as many cities lining up to host the Winter Games as there were a few years ago. But not too many have infrastructure like Calgary does. Some of the cities that do would jump at the chance to host again. In Salt Lake City where the 2002 Games were hosted, 89 percent said they would welcome the Games back in the near future. Italy, where Turin hosted the 2006 Games, is hoping to leverage what venues they have to stage another Games in 2026.
For the Summer Games, nine cities have already expressed interest in the 2032 edition.
The last thing the IOC wants to do is to site the Games in a city where the event is not wanted. What they really need now is a city that works, a city that will help them validate the Agenda 2020 reform package and demonstrate that hosting a Winter Games is viable. The IOC will strongly support any winner of the 2026 Olympic bid, and minimize risk as much as possible.
If that city is not Calgary, then so be it.
Now it’s over to you!
Read the previous letters in the “Dear Calgary” series:
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.