Games plebiscite a much closer race than many expected
With Calgary’s Olympic-bid campaign nearing the finish line, fond memories of 1988 fade amid skepticism and cost-overrun fears
Calgary’s bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics was supposed to be an easy sell to a city with fond memories of the ’88 Games and where residents are looking for an escape from years of economic troubles. Instead, it has turned into a bitterly divisive debate marred by concerns about costs, government infighting and a level of public skepticism that has taken bid organizers by surprise.
The city’s pursuit of the Games has been dominated in recent weeks by widespread public confusion over a $5.1-billion budget and a last-minute funding proposal that did not answer questions about who would be on the hook for cost overruns. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has described a late October scramble between all three levels of government to secure funding for the Olympics, marked by public bickering between officials in Alberta and Ottawa, as “gross.” Council has also lost its enthusiasm for the project and a majority voted against the bid last week.
The final days before a Nov. 13 plebiscite, in which Calgarians will be asked whether they want to continue with a bid, have been a struggle for the 2026 Calgary bid corporation. Sitting in a fourthfloor conference room overlooking downtown Calgary, chief executive Mary Moran and the bid group chair Scott Hutcheson say they didn’t anticipate the level of negative feeling the bid would face.
“Why is everyone so caught up in fear and skepticism when there is an abundance of hope?” said Mr. Hutcheson, answering a question about the risk of possible cost overruns. “It’s a remarkable place we are in and to sit here with you, I just have to say, you have to ask us about the upside before the end of this. Because we can’t just answer every question for days and weeks about all the negativity.”
At several points during a 30minute sit-down with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Hutcheson used the word “fear” to describe the atti- tude the bid corporation has faced in the days before the plebiscite. “I’m so tired of fear. Can you ask us about hope?” he asked.
The bid corporation, as well as an unaffiliated group advocating for the Yes side in the plebiscite, are staffed with high-profile consultants and have publicly disclosed an advertising budget of more than $1-million to persuade Calgarians to stick with the Olympic bid. The city’s hotel association has also said it will pay to light a large cauldron at the top of Calgary Tower in the evenings before the plebiscite. The No side is made up of a handful of volunteers and, when asked by The Globe, said their advertising budget was about $10 – the cost of a few cups of coffee with voters.
Despite the lopsided battle over Calgary’s Olympic dreams, the history of Olympic referendums doesn’t bode well for the city’s bid. A growing number of cities have walked away from potential bids after failed votes, and only one plebiscite in recent decades has led to the Games: the 2003 vote that cleared the way for Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Emma May, an organizer for the Yes side, said the bid has faced a number of headwinds over the past month. The city had promised to have a completed bid budget for residents to read at least 30 days before the vote. The budget was more than two weeks late. “For the No side, that was an easy thing to pick on when we didn’t have the deal yet,” she said.
While the Yes side has drawn heavily on Calgary’s experience after hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics and the legacy of new venues, Ms. May said much of the opposition has come from the city’s current economic stagnation.
“I’m surprised that negativity has attached itself to this project. You can pick up a real frustration about the state of the economy. We had an incredible experience after 1988 and we’ve been in the doldrums before, but there is a real sense of powerlessness in the electorate. They are worried about pipelines, they are worried about the oil price differential and they don’t have control over that. This has become a way for people to express themselves and reject all levels of government,” she said.
Speaking to Calgary’s Cham- ber of Commerce on Thursday, Mr. Nenshi highlighted the city’s economic woes. There is currently as much empty office space in downtown Calgary as the city of Vancouver has in total office space, according to Mr. Nenshi.
The Olympics would bring a “huge economic benefit, $4.4-billion injected into the local economy. So from a dollars-and-cents perspective, it’s hard to pass up on this opportunity,” the mayor said. In recent weeks, a number of economists have questioned whether the economic benefits would happen, especially the 15,000 jobs Mr. Nenshi says the Olympics would create.
“It’s an amazing deal for Calgary. It’s better than anything I could have imagined when we started this process,” Mr. Nenshi said, adding that he is undeterred by the criticism.
The mayor said he has seen internal polling over the past few days showing momentum swinging toward the Yes side.
Most people have already made up their minds about how they’ll vote, said Erin Waite, a spokeswoman for the No campaign.
“It probably has been a sur- prise to some that it has been as challenging as it has been for them. I think that reflects a lack of consideration about how different Calgary is today from 1988,” she said. “This project comes at the exclusion of many, many things Calgarians need right now.”
According to city staff, Calgary’s $390-million in expected spending on the Games, along with a further $200-million in contingencies, would leave the city’s capital budget largely tapped for the next decade. Ms. Waite said she’s concerned that the city’s slim budget for the Games, which has already seen substantial cuts to the expected cost of security and housing, could go significantly over the estimates.
Back at the bid corporation, Ms. Moran said that worries about cost overruns are overblown. Unlike other Olympics, the city’s bid calls for the construction of only two new venues as well as the refurbishment of 11 more. “They are obsessed,” Ms. Moran said about the questions she’s received about overruns. “There aren’t going to be any overruns.”