Tough to be pru­dent and showy

Cal­gary’s Olympic pro­posal a rel­a­tive bar­gain, but lacks much in way of legacy

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - SCOTT STINSON

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.

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