By Matty Hume, September 28 2018 —
From council chamber debates to plebiscites and 10-digit price tags to municipal government leaks, Calgary’s potential bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics remains an ever-present topic of buzz and debate around the city.
While that debate continues in Calgary’s city council, non-governmental advocacy groups are also taking the contentious issue directly to the public with clear intentions. Yes Calgary 2026 and No Calgary Olympics are the two opposing volunteer organizations with one common goal — ensuring that no Calgarian is apathetic about an Olympic bid’s ramifications. Each organization backs their stance with similar evidence, yet reach drastically opposing conclusions.
“I think it’s the wrong project at the wrong time,” said Jeanne Milne, a social media co-ordinator for No Calgary Olympics. “We’ve heard that city council is looking at spending cuts on key projects because of the tight situation we’re in. I mean, we’re facing huge problems with our oil and gas industry in order to get our product to market with pipelines.”
“I think that in changing economic times and reforms in the Olympic movement as well, this is the right time to pursue this kind of bid and a ‘Yes,’ ” said Jason Ribeiro, a volunteer organizer for Yes Calgary 2026.
Following the announcement of a possible $5.2-billion price tag, cost is unsurprisingly a key talking point for both sides of the Olympic debate. For No Calgary Olympics, the resulting costs will ultimately be a taxpayer burden, while Yes Calgary 2026 sees the costs as a taxpayer investment.
According to Ribeiro, $2.2 billion of the total projected cost is operations expenses, which he argues have the potential to balance through revenue from hosting the Games.
“Operations, which is $2.23 billion, in every single modern Olympics, has balanced its budget where revenues have matched or exceeded the expenses,” Ribeiro said. “So all of a sudden, that $2.23 billion is covered by the historic $1.2-billion Canadian dollar contribution from the IOC — that they’ve never given before — it’s covered by domestic sponsorships and it’s covered by ticket sales.”
However, Milne pointed out that whichever level of government provides funds for the Games, it’s still using public funds Calgarians pay into.
“Cost can only go up from there,” Milne said. “Ultimately, if you’re a Canadian, you’re still paying all three tiers of taxes. I just worry about what this means for the next generation and what the city taxes are going to look like in order to pay for this.”
“The federal government announced that they are supporting this bid, that they will likely support up to 50 per cent of this bid. So whatever Calgary and the provincial government’s contributions are, the federal government will match it,” Ribeiro said. “I would argue that the price tag to not [envelop public funds into the Olympics] would be far higher if we let this opportunity go and failed to leverage those dollars. We’d get far less return on our tax dollars if we did not envelop it in an Olympic bid.”
Another distinct point of disagreement between Ribeiro and Milne is whether or not hosting the Olympics will genuinely provide the city with increased infrastructure, such as affordable housing.
“We need to upgrade our facilities [like] McMahon Stadium [and] our Olympic facilities. That would come at a cost,” Ribeiro said. “We also need to invest in affordable housing for students and those struggling with addiction in a fragile economic recovery.”
“When we look at a project like the Olympics, everyone is talking about all the benefits but we can’t see any evidence of any of those benefits actually coming to fruition,” Milne said.
Considering the role the University of Calgary could play in hosting the Olympics, such as the existing Olympic Oval, post-secondary students make up a significant portion of Calgarians that would be directly affected by hosting. Yes Calgary 2026 has organized a presence at every post-secondary in the city with the help of Brooklyn McDougall, a biological sciences undergraduate at U of C and long-track speed skater.
“[One] thing I’d mention for post-secondary students is thinking about the job market that they’re going to be entering into around the time of the Olympics and just prior. What is the city going to do with a clear global spotlight ramping up towards the Olympics in a country that is struggling with attracting foreign investment, in a province that’s going to have to deal with the complexity of an economy powered largely by one sector?” Ribeiro said. “What opportunities do we have to invest in our talents, in our human capital and in our amazing graduates to ensure the job force they enter prior to 2026 and beyond is powered by that global spotlight and possibly increased foreign investment now that Calgary’s strengths are demonstrated on the world stage?
“Obviously [students] would be able to enjoy the games, cheer on some of our athletes, a large number of which are alumni or currently training right now,” he continued. “The biggest thing is by investing in recreation facilities, we invest in the opportunity for folks who are students right now at the U of C or have grown up here, to potentially stay in this city.”
In contrast, Milne argues that such perceived benefits shouldn’t be considered as a done deal.
“I think it’s hard to know what the benefits would be for students,” Milne said. “I know when I was a student I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to the Games. Even as someone in the middle class I’m not sure I can afford to go to the Games.
“For students, my concern is that it would just result in future taxes that they’ll have to cover,” she continued. “I can’t see enough of a benefit. I can’t see enough of an upside.”
On Nov. 13, Calgarians have the opportunity to vote in a non-binding plebiscite on whether or not to place a bid for the 2026 Olympics. Until then, both groups hope to get their message as many Calgarians as possible to ensure they vote, regardless of stance.
“Right now we’re focused on getting the word out. We’re looking at what we can do in a really cost effective way,” Milne said. “We’ll certainly be participating in forums and some of the ward [councillors] are putting on some forums and we’re certainly going to be participating in any and all of those we possibly can.”
“The biggest thing that I want to do is start a really thoughtful, open, city-wide conversation,” Ribeiro said. “I think that whether you’re a ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ or somewhere in between, on [Nov. 13], whether the decision is yes or no, we all have to come together as a city.”