Alberta Politics
The 1988 Calgary Olympics – don’t count on seeing anything like this in Calgary for a while (Photo: Panasonic).

Calgary’s Olympic bid is dead, but don’t completely rule out a zombie moment

Posted on November 14, 2018, 2:54 pm
8 mins

Moments after 10 p.m. last night, the few Albertans nervously paying attention outside Calgary received word voters in Cowtown had clearly said no to the idea of a re-do in 2026 of the city’s fabled 1988 Winter Olympics.

I use the term fabled advisedly, as I suspect the vaunted success of the ’88 Olympics was mainly a fable spun by some of my former colleagues at the Calgary Herald. It certainly was an industry inside the Herald’s giant bunker on Deerfoot Trail long after memories of the actual event had faded.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The massive Herald building – probably the last newspaper plant on the planet with a state-of-the-art pneumatic tube system when it was built in 1980 – is now, like the Olympic dream, open for bids from outsiders.

Still, both the Herald and the Olympic bid can for the moment can be counted among the undead – not really living, but still rattling chains and making occasional thumping noises. At least until Monday, anyway, when Calgary City Council is expected to vote to put the expensive plant out of its misery.

Speaking as an old City Hall reporter from that city, though, I say you can’t entirely rule out a zombie bid for the Games, at least until councillors have formally driven a legislative stake through the heart of the idea.

But even if someone tries for a zombie bid, it’s unlikely now to do much more than prolong the misery.

Thirty years after the first time, $700-million in provincial funding for the proposed multi-billion-dollar do-over hinged on a successful plebiscite in favour of the games.

So when a yes vote failed to materialize last night after a discombobulated effort by the pro-bid forces – who appeared to have lots of money but no idea of how to run a winning campaign – you could almost hear the province-wide sighs of relief.

Finance Minister Joe Ceci meets the media on Oct. 27 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

There were 171,750 no votes to 132,832 in favour, or 56.4 per cent to 43.6 per cent. So it would be pretty hard to argue that’s a statistical tie – although someone’s sure to try.

Since Premier Rachel Notley insisted on a yes vote before the province forked over its promised contribution, that really should be the end of it. But, like I said, never underestimate the influence of a bunch of well-heeled developers screaming for government dough.

As far as could be seen from up here in Alberta’s capital, local opposition in Calgary to the expense, already estimated at more than $5 billion and likely to have gone much higher than that, was spread pretty evenly across all political ideologies and parties.

The idea may have seemed like a good idea when the bid was cooked up in 2016, but it had certainly lost its appeal by last night.

Lefties were largely horrified at the notion of limited tax revenues going to elite fripperies when basics like health care and public transportation are always under threat in this province. Grassroots conservatives were equally appalled at the potential tax impact.

For this reason, I’m pretty sure Premier Notley’s NDP Government was privately relieved not to have to wear political egg on its face for the costs of this project. So were significant parts of her opposition led by United Conservative Party Jason Kenney. Nevertheless, the UCP seemed to view the campaign as a dress rehearsal for the 2019 general election, as well as a good way to undermine Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is definitely not on Mr. Kenney’s holiday card list.

No sooner was the vote announced last night than Culture and Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda emailed a statement saying the province would respect the decision. (Whew!) This morning he made it more formal, saying the province respects the vote results and the money is off the table.

Ricardo Miranda (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Count on it the feeling is much the same in Ottawa – where it is well understood by the current government this is a corner of Canada where spending big bucks on anything seldom returns a dividend in votes.

That may account for why the Justin Trudeau’s Liberals tarried so long making Ottawa’s level of support public, and when it did finally cough up a number of $1.4 billion in late October, made it dependent on the province and city ponying up more.

Provincial Finance Minister Joe Ceci, clearly annoyed when he was called out of the NDP’s pre-election convention, ripped the feds for leaking the details to media, and grumpily added, “If they put the goalposts back, we are happy to keep talking, but we’re not going to engage in any kind of bad faith tactics.”

Well, no need to worry about that now.

Even Calgary City Council seemed to have soured on the idea. It voted eight to six to kill the bid just before Halloween, and the torture only continued because that didn’t meet the 10-vote threshold required to overturn a previous approval.

One interesting question arising is whether the vote outcome signals the direction the political winds are blowing in in Calgary for next spring’s expected provincial election.

Despite confident suggestions by the usual suspects, this is not absolutely clear.

Within moments of the results last night, Opposition spinmeisters were arguing the vote meant Calgary voters were in a sour mood, ready to turn on the NDP.

Voters there may well choose the Opposition next year, but the Olympic bid is unlikely to have much to do with it. And if the wind shifts, the UCP is as likely to attack the government for not supporting the bid enough as for supporting it too much.

In other words, a plebiscite on a plan clearly strongly opposed by many on both sides of Alberta’s political divide is probably not a reliable barometer of voter intentions in the election next spring.

2 Comments to: Calgary’s Olympic bid is dead, but don’t completely rule out a zombie moment

  1. David

    November 14th, 2018

    They Olympic movement, to mix metaphors jumped the shark some time ago – remember Rio? It was not the only recent Olympics that was over budget and left the host country with a huge fiscal hang over, so it should not be surprising so few bidders are interested in what appears to have become Olympic folly.

    1988 was a different time and Calgary was a different city, perhaps before the Olympics became corrupted. Now, maybe they have cleaned up their messes or maybe not, but does anyone want to take a chance with the Olympic committee right now? Understandably, most places are not so eager any more.

    It also sure doesn’t help that Alberta’s fiscal situation is not so good at this time. Would any provincial government want to go around cutting spending on schools or hospitals, while spending hundreds of millions on the Olympics? Probably not. It seemed the Federal government was a bit more enthusiastic than Alberta about the Olympics, but in reality there was not much political payback, if any, for either level of government here. Nor was the provincial official opposition even enthusiastic about it. Perhaps the only ones who were enthusiastic about it were the Mayor of Calgary and a few councilors and even some of them wavered and a majority voted against it recently. I suppose by then you could see the writing was on the wall.

    A Calgary newspaper columnist wrote about who killed the Olympics – the article must have been edited greatly, because the real list of suspects is quite long, not short. The shorter list, would be of those politicians who supported it enthusiastically – the mayor of Calgary, a few councilors and some nearby communities. It will be hard for Kenney and the UCP to later blame things on the NDP – they were certainly not out enthusiastically campaigning for the Olympics. I am not saying they will not try doing that, but they may risk looking foolish if they do. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mayor of Calgary asks them “where were you?” if they do try.

    If Calgary is truly a great city, as booster like to say, I think then it is a better place than to try repeat past glories. Perhaps it is time to do something new, something different, something less financially grandiose and something better instead.

    Reply
  2. Tiddo

    November 15th, 2018

    Speaking with friends and family leading up to and after the vote revealed an almost even split in voting preference between yes and no, but not actual sentiments about the games themselves.

    Most people agreed that hosting the Olympics would be great, but the disagreements came down to whether the obvious risks were worth the potential gains.

    For me, an ardent NO from the beginning, it was largely about optics. The same people leading and populating the Yes campaign and expecting the public purse to just open up and gush forth to make their dreams come true, appear to be the same people who can be relied upon to declare the sky is falling every time a new civic project dares to raise their taxes by so much as a dollar per month if there isn’t some immediate and direct benefit to themselves.

    I’m not opposed to hosting the Olympics; in my estimation, most of the No side isn’t either. It’s just that this version never made sense – financially or socially.

    If the Yes side really wants to host the Olympics and realize the benefits that hosting is supposed to provide they need to consider on a few bold but necessary ideas:

    We need a new arena. Why they didn’t include a new arena in the proposal is beyond me. Yes a cost and revenue sharing formula would need to be worked out with the Flames. But building it now with the Flames input would probably go a long way to securing an equitable deal with the team and definitely have changed a lot of minds from no to yes.

    We should have insisted on a multi-year deal. The current model of selecting host cities is ridiculous, expensive and wasteful. The IOC needs to just start designating semi-permanent homes for the Summer, Winter and Paralympic Games. The Yes team should have been insisting on a multi-year deal from the start: why spend $5B to get one Olympics when you can get two or three over the next four or five cycles?

    And finally, they should have thought long and hard about how the advertising and sponsorship revenue from the Games gets pushed around. I don’t know what the IOC needs so much money for when they don’t appear to do much but dsitribute largesse and collect favours.

    Just my two cents from YYC

    Reply

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