The City of Calgary began an exploration process in July 2016 to assess the risks and benefits of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics. October 2017 began a dialogue process to flesh out the way forward in getting government partners and evaluating public support. January 2018 there was a push to support the games and get city council approval to make a formal bid by January 2019. The bid failed to spark the vision of greatness and celebration that would get the support of the citizens of Calgary. There was a huge discussion and negotiation process that led to a public vote this past week when Calgarians voted to not go ahead with an Olympic bid.
I got caught up in this process early because I have always been glued to the tube watching the Olympics. My daughter was a mascot in the 1988 Olympics and I have great memories of what Calgary was able to do. I was generally positive in support of the bid. I kept up with the progress reports and assumed that council would make the right decision in time. In the past 8 months I found myself on the fence as the process continued and more questions emerged about the finances. The Alberta economy played an important role for many people with both positive and negative influences. The Olympics were put forward as a way to renew the Alberta economy, show the world what we could do, fill empty office space in downtown Calgary, refurbish aging sport infrastructure, and give us and the world a positive vision of Calgary as a forward-looking city. But financial concerns regarding the huge expense of the games and the risk of overruns and increasing debt kept a damper on the excitement.
I answered an Angus Reid survey just after a revised last-minute budget was adopted and more money was pledged by governments. Answering the survey was a very important experience for me because it led me to think deeper about the bid. I surprised myself because out of 10 questions concerning the benefits of the games for Calgary I answered “yes” to 8 of them but still felt I wanted to vote “no”. What was I thinking? As I thought more deeply I became more aware of some aspects of the bid that were influencing my decision.
I realized that there were important issues that were not being addressed in the public conversation. First, this is not 1988. The state of the world politically, socially, and economically is much different and I think there is a great risk that the Olympic games could be severely compromised and possibly not held at all. That would leave us with a lot of new venues, but would bring a small return on the billions of dollars spent. Second, I am wondering if the Olympic format, which worked well in the past now needs to be rethought and revised. Maybe with many events held in different locations throughout the year using facilities that already exist. Third, have sports reached an upper limit on expanding the human ability to break more records without using drugs or training that damages the participants? Hearing that an athlete has suffered very severe injuries three times and come back to compete again is not a badge of valor that I want to encourage. I don’t want contestants to sacrifice their future comfort and well-being so I can have a few moments of entertainment. I have checked this out with a doctor and he said even in traditional sports like hockey and football the length of time players are viable and at their best is decreasing because of increased demands and stress and strain on their bodies. And, finally, I don’t trust the IOC. The Olympics has become big business and they wield a lot of power. The scandals and decisions in the past 10 years lead me to believe that the best interests of the athletes is not their highest priority.
So I voted no, not for purely financial reasons but because in an evolutionary context we need to rethink the future of sports and the great contests like the Olympics and see if they have had their day and need to be done differently and better. Letting go is one of the main tasks of growth. Letting go is not necessarily the end of the Olympics but it may be the beginning of doing them better. I am not happy that I needed to say no, but I am still convinced that there are much bigger issues that need to be talked about.