Tough to be prudent and showy
Calgary’s Olympic proposal a relative bargain, but lacks much in way of legacy
The Pyeongchang 2018 Organizing Committee issued a statement last week declaring that “legacy plans are underway” with respect to three of its most expensive venues.
If it strikes you as a bit surprising that, six months after the Olympics left town, the organizers were just now considering what to do with the hockey rink, the skating oval, and the alpine mountain, you would not be wrong. But the statement came as a response to recent reports in Korea that Gangwon province was facing “massive debt” related to the Games and needs millions of dollars to keep those costly facilities open.
That part isn’t a surprise at all. The post- Games letdown of underused and overly expensive venues is a standard part of the Olympic experience, right up there with the hosts letting a drunk athlete who smashes up a gas station or steals a Humvee off the hook.
It’s something that the organizers of a potential Calgary 2026 bid seem very much determined to avoid.
The most notable thing about the somewhat-more-detailed $5.2-billion plan for a Calgary Games remains that it would spend next to nothing, in Olympic infrastructure terms, on new venues: Just $400 million for a secondary hockey arena and a fieldhouse and $500 million to spruce up the big stadiums that were used in the 1988 Olympics.
They would also use the Whistler ski jump and maybe curl in Edmonton, and pity the poor Norwegian fan who buys tickets to both before looking at a map.
Considering that Pyeongchang spent an estimated $6 billion on infrastructure alone, there’s an undeniable logic to the Calgary plan. All that money was spent in Korea despite an evident lack of interest in that country in downhill skiing, hockey or long-track speed skating and, lo, it is those facilities that are waiting for a usage plan.
The alpine venue in Jeongseon was supposed to be reforested (seriously) after the Games, but provincial and local officials now want to keep it open as a tourist draw. It is tall and narrow and in the middle of nowhere, and seems unlikely to become Asia’s Kitzbuhel either way.
The Korean experience follows the much more grim results from Rio 2016, where most facilities are either shuttered or in disrepair or both. Organizers there gave up on some of the planned legacy projects long before the Games even began once funding problems began to mount. Bold pre- Games legacy plans lead to post-Games sadness.
The Calgary 2026 proposal for more of an off-the-rack Olympics wouldn’t just lead to less risk of crumbling, empty buildings, it would — in theory — be less likely to be subject to the cost overruns that plague all Olympic plans. If you avoid building big new things, you could dodge the spiralling costs that lead to the final bills that tend to come in close to 150% over what was planned. That is a big “could,” mind you: even a Calgary 2026 that was only 50% over budget, which would be heroic restraint by Olympic standards, would still mean someone needs to find another $2.5 billion.
Looking over the Calgary proposal, the biggest item in terms of a tangible legacy, other than the improvements to existing buildings like the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium, appears to be affordable housing. It promises $583 million for temporary athletes’ housing that would be converted post- Games to permanent units.
The proposal says these investments would help address housing shortages in Calgary and Canmore. But it would only address them so much, imagining a 600-unit affordable housing bump and a 240-unit seniors complex. The proposal itself says there is a shortage in Calgary of 15,000 affordable housing units.
If there has been an Olympic bid plan in recent years that is less ambitious in terms of what it promises to leave behind when the Games have left, I am not aware of it. This one touts enhancements and upgrades to existing facilities and some housing that would put but a dent in the region’s present shortfall. It is tough to be both prudent and showy at the same time.
And so, the question that Calgarians will be left to consider when the Olympic proposal goes to a vote in November is a pretty simple one: Do you want to spend a few billion dollars on a month or so of good times?
That’s not intended as a question that answers itself. Even though no one knew what they were going to do with the ski hill or the hockey arena, Korea seemed damned happy to be an Olympic host.
Late in the Games, I was at dinner with a colleague and realized that the restaurant was unusually quiet. It turned out everyone was watching women’s curling on their phones. They were riveted. The home team won and beers were on the house.
You’ve never seen so many foreign journalists become Korean curling fans.
That part of the Olympic experience is not nothing: it’s a big, communal party and civic pride gets a horse-steroid injection and if things work out you get to show the best parts of yourself off to the world. The Olympics are undoubtedly a few weeks of fun.
Whether it is billions of dollars worth of fun is a tougher question to answer.
The Calgary Tower is seen through Olympic rings built into railing at Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary.