Following is the fourth in a series of open letters to residents of Calgary, and those citizens in other cities who are contemplating Olympic bids.
On Wednesday, your city council approved the Calgary 2026 Olympic bid to go to a plebiscite, now less than two weeks away. Some Councilors wanted to delay that plebiscite so that you would have more information available, and more time to digest it before making this important decision for your families, and for your city.
But let me say, you’ve had more information and for much longer than any other city heading into an Olympic bid referendum at this stage.
For context, I would say you have as much data now as Vancouver voters had heading into their plebiscite that was held just weeks before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was to render its final verdict on the 2010 Winter Games bid. With final plans already in IOC hands, and an evaluation team at headquarters in Lausanne packing their bags to visit the venues up close, 64 percent of voters approved that bid.
Enabled by the IOC’s new open dialogue process, I strongly believe that from so many perspectives – Calgary 2026 is the most transparent Olympic bid in history.
Where have you heard this before? Right. It’s been Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s go to phrase every time someone asks about closed-door city council meetings and redacted reports.
“This has been called the most transparent process in Olympic history,” he has said – often referencing “observers” and “experts” in the same breath. The phrase has been so connected with the Mayor that when Radio News Journalist Lucas Meyer recorded his impression of Nenshi (by-the-way his impressions are awesome – watch it) – he performed that line.
But I’m not hijacking the Mayor’s line, in fact, it’s the other way around.
Calgary’s Sprawlcast journalism website first picked up on this in April, connecting Nenshi’s remarks with something I had tweeted that was subsequently read to City Council during a debate, and just prior to an 8-6 vote approving the release of further funding to the Olympic bid.
City Project Manager Kyle Ripley, representing the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC), read the tweet that I had erroneously posted to the official GamesBids.com Twitter account (I had intended to use my personal account) just a day earlier while I was reviewing notes ahead of that debate. I was genuinely impressed with the amount of information that had been prepared by CBEC and other sources at that early stage, and I felt the need to share that in a response to Councilor Jeromy Farkas’ concerns about secrecy.
— GamesBids.com (@gamesbids) March 20, 2018
I felt that way then, and I continue to think it now.
Through feedback both on and off social media, I learned that people were not quite in agreement (when is that not the case, though?). People didn’t understand who I was and what I was doing. Some suggested I was on Mayor Nenshi’s payroll while others pointed to other nefarious motives I might have, after “suddenly appearing” in words at a City Council meeting ahead of a critical debate.
To be clear, I have covered 60 or 70 Olympic bids over the past two decades, and began investigating Calgary’s Olympic bid the moment the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) indicated the possibility in 2015. I may have never attended a Stampede, but I’m not new to this rodeo.
But enough about me. Let’s talk transparency.
Take a look at this piece I prepared for GamesBids.com in 2003 – IOC Okays Vancouver’s Bid Book Release.
You read that right, it was not very long ago that the IOC mandated what information bids could, or could not release to the public, and when. At this stage in Vancouver’s candidacy you would have had a wide overview of the plans with little detail, until the IOC agreed to let you see more.
In case you didn’t click the link, there was also this: “Robert Kaspar, secretary-director for Salzburg 2010 (Olympic bid), said the bid committee was surprised when they received the fax from the IOC withdrawing permission to release the complete bid books. ‘We did get [the IOC] to allow us to give out the financial details, but we could not let the rest of the books out’, he said” (emphasis added).
It ended up being a case of a misplaced fax, but in the not-to-distant past you would have received full financial data only after the bid books were delivered to the IOC (in this round that’s January 11, 2019) and when they’d given permission to release it.
The intent was for the IOC to fully vet plans first, so it could ensure all conditions were met before details became available to rivals.
Can you even imagine that conversation going on in Calgary right now? Twitter would have gone even more out of its mind.
Things have changed dramatically now that the IOC has transformed the entire bid process to make it more open. I’m not sure that you’ll get to see the entire bid book, cover-to-cover, before the IOC does in January – but you have a pretty detailed breakdown of venues and finances well ahead of that delivery.
There are also good reasons why you haven’t seen every little granular bit of information about the bid even before you cast your plebiscite ballot, and I’m not sure it differs too much from the way business is run by the city when taking on any large project.
There’s the competitive advantage – your city is investing over CAD $30 million in a competitive bid process against other cities still in the race (Stockholm and a joint project from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo), so presumably (politics aside) you would want Calgary to have the best possible chance. That’s the Calgary 2026 mandate, if approved by the city.
In theory, the best deal for the IOC will win. So revealing a strategy that reduces risks or increases benefits for the IOC BEFORE all bids are finalized could give a rival city a chance to answer the competitive threat, nullifying Calgary’s “good idea”.
There are the negotiations with venues, partners and stakeholders – I won’t go into the details of the multi-party funding agreement among the city, province and federal government that caused so much turmoil this week, but it’s important to note that the bid was not at fault, and it wasn’t a transparency issue. Such negotiations are sensitive and normally held in private.
Some wonder why there isn’t more information about the possible location for the currently unsited curling venue. If multiple prospects are currently in negotiation with the bid, making those known to the public would certainly impact any negotiations, and could hinder the project.
There are also privacy and legal issues that may prevent the bid corporation from revealing details about a partner’s business.
Those, in aggregate, account for the closed-doors and sharpie-line redactions – and yes, politics do too. The practice for previous bids had been to hold all planning sessions in private, and offer no reports to redact.
You may not now know what a good seat at the Women’s Figure Skating Short Program event will cost in 2026, or exactly where the venue with that seat will be placed, but you already have a very good idea of the venue and infrastructure plans, and a reasonable accounting of the taxpayer impact and risks. That’s a lot more than anyone can say about most previous bids.
And it’s far more detail than any major project planned further than seven years out.
You, and only you, also know what non-economic benefits your family and friends may enjoy – because that is a unique answer for each taxpayer.
That might not be enough for some, but I’d say it’s plenty to qualify Calgary 2026 for the most transparent-bid-ever award. And there’s more.
With a bit of an ironic twist, it’s those who are most concerned about the lack of transparency who are making it almost crystal clear.
The lengthy City Council debate held to examine a motion to cancel the bid on Wednesday was… well, according to my own tweet “I’ve never seen a more comprehensive technical discussion about a potential bid, in public, streamed worldwide, ever. This is actually quite inspiring.”
Those Councillors who voted against the bid Wednesday asked questions that drew some of the most informative answers from experts who schooled everyone in earshot about the Olympics, and the bid. Among the listeners were crowds of Olympians who came to support the bid, dressed in red.
But don’t take my word for it. The thoughtful questions, inspiring presentations, detailed number crunching and raucous Olympians caught the attention of several others around the world who tuned in to the livestream.
Communications consultant Stratos Safioleas (@stratosathens) from Greece, who has advised several Olympic bids in the past, was one of the international viewers who noticed something special.
He tweeted “I followed most of the process via livestream and it was fascinating. A proper discussion on why the Olympics matter to Calgary, the right tone, even between people with different opinions. It sets a standard in public discourse.”
In another tweet he added “Regardless of the outcome, the way the City is approaching the matter is admirable in terms of transparency.”
Long-time Olympic Games journalist for The Chicago Tribune, Philip Hersh ( @olyphil ) responded to Safioleas with “I would have expected nothing less from Canadians, especially western Canadians.”
That’s seems like something to be proud of. Perspective is everything.
I strongly believe that from so many perspectives – Calgary 2026 is the most transparent Olympic bid in history.
Quite honestly, there is so much information coming from the partners behind the Olympic bid right now that it’s difficult to keep up and get it straight.
That should be great news for those who are on the ‘no’ side, the ‘yes’ side or if they are undecided.
For me, that’s unusual at this stage. For others, maybe the information overload is resulting in misunderstanding, and even more questions. But that’s good – keep asking them. Even as others try to convince you that there is not enough information available.
And ask Calgary 2026 how the city gets back $10 for every $1 spent. No really, ask – I need to understand that one myself (note to Calgary 2026: dial it back a bit).
While thinking back to my original tweet on transparency that was subsequently read in City Council, the timing of it doesn’t escape me.
It was during that debate in March that Mayor Nenshi announced that he had “breaking news” to share privately with council, alluding to funding negotiations with the government partners. We now know it was then that the original deal with the Federal government, the offer of $1.5 billion was extended.
What we still don’t know is where Mayor Nenshi got the idea that the dollar-for-dollar matching clause would not apply to Calgary, as it did for Vancouver 2010 and Toronto 2015. We may never know.
That disconnect almost led to the destruction of the Calgary 2026 bid, but instead resulted in a strategic deal and an inspiring and informative debate that set a precedent for all future Olympic bids.
Transparency isn’t absolute. Nor does it need to be.
You’ve got what you need to decide. It’s up to you. Now go vote!