Illustration: Tyler Lemermeyer

Calgary’s Olympic mess

This was no way to build public trust.

Calgary’s bungled pursuit of the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics has become a case study in how not to build public trust.

However it ends, this much is clear: Calgarians deserve far better than the mess before us now. Those who have worked in good faith on a bid, volunteering countless hours. Those who have challenged the boosters, debunking rosy promises. And the many undecided Calgarians who, surveying the sorry scene of confusion, have had trouble making sense of it all.

The big question in town hasn’t been the one on the plebiscite ballot: “Are you for or are you against Calgary hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?”

That’s an important question, but underlying it is a deeper one: Who can we trust on this?

That was the core question even before the funding fiasco broke open on the weekend, with Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the Trudeau government at odds over whether or not the feds require a dollar for dollar match from the province and city.

Nenshi has reportedly accused the feds of not following through on their word—but then, that’s how it’s been all along on this file. City hall has repeatedly failed to follow through on its many assurances, leaving Calgarians mystified on an issue that could define our civic priorities for the next decade.

“It feels like we have to sell this to the province and we need to sell this to the federal government,” said Councillor Jyoti Gondek at council in January, expressing a growing discomfort with the process. “It concerns me that our governments are not on board and behind this bid.”

She turned to the mayor and added: “It concerns me that you are the only elected official that’s championing this.”

Clearly, Gondek’s concerns were well-placed.

It concerns me that our governments are not on board and behind this bid.

Councillor Jyoti Gondek,

January 2018

At the time, Nenshi reassured council that they should have answers from the federal and provincial governments by June. The plan was to then engage Calgarians with those numbers in hand.

“If we are going to have public conversation, we need to put it on the table,” said Councillor Shane Keating at council in April. “Town halls, open houses, online surveys, mailouts… Let’s make sure Calgarians have all of the information they need, and have a well-informed perspective on this issue.”

The following month, in May, council’s Olympics committee voted against holding a public hearing. A city government that, until recently, required a public hearing for individual basement suites decided that nope, the Winter Olympics didn’t warrant a hearing.

But the funding answers didn’t come in June, as expected — or July, August or September. Nor did the promised public engagement program. Now, two weeks from the plebiscite date, the funding numbers still haven’t arrived.

Meanwhile, everyone has been talking over each other in a ridiculous circus of conflicting information.

The publicly funded bid corporation, or BidCo, has been promoting the bid before the plebiscite. The various yes and no groups have been making their pitches. BidCo, frustrated with the cacophony, said it would “flood the market” to get its message across, armed with a $1.4-million marketing budget.

We talked about robust public engagement. Well, I think we can all agree that that hasn’t been the case.

Councillor Druh Farrell

Amid all this noise, the city finally got around to launching its “neutral” public engagement program this month, by now a last-minute rush job that involved the usual poster boards and post-its routine, along with a botched online component.

“We talked about robust public engagement,” said Councillor Druh Farrell. “Well, I think we can all agree that that hasn’t been the case.”

It’s a shame that trust has broken down so badly. Though it’s hard to believe now, Calgary’s foray into the 2026 question originally began with thoughtful deliberation.

In June 2016, the city tasked a bid exploration committee (CBEC) of sport, business and community leaders with digging into the question: should Calgary bid?

“I had the great privilege and benefit of sifting through, quite literally, thousands of pages of documentation and being part of hundreds of hours of conversation on any given topic — engagement, facilities, budget, you name it," said Patti Pon, CEO of Calgary Arts Development, who was on the committee. (I interviewed her last week, before the weekend funding mayhem.)

“How do you distill that into a conversation with Calgarians who didn’t have that benefit? It took me two years to build the trust.”

If I had to make an observation now about what I’m hearing and feeling, there are a lot of Calgarians out there who feel like they didn’t get their say.

Patti Pon,

former bid committee member

In retrospect, Pon wishes CBEC had time to do more engagement with Calgarians from the outset. “The kind of town hall stuff that you’re seeing happening now — we should have been doing that, and I regret that we didn’t get a chance to,” she said. “Calgarians didn’t get a chance to build that trust with us.”

“If I had to make an observation now about what I’m hearing and feeling, there are a lot of Calgarians out there who feel like they didn’t get their say.”

When CBEC reported back to council, they addressed two questions: 1) can Calgary bid and 2) should Calgary bid?

On the first question, they were certain. Yes, Calgary could bid. But should we? That required further info and consideration.

The idea was that with the first question settled, you could move on to the second. But we seem to have gone backwards: now the first question is in doubt.

There was a moment in April, with the bid seemingly on the brink (councillors had said they’d kill it), when Councillor Gondek asked council to pause, regroup and let go of pursuing 2026—partly to rebuild trust with Calgarians.

“If we move to a 2030 bid, we can truly create the momentum and the ground-up support that people have so fondly remembered from the 1988 Olympics,” she said.

“We need to do this right. We need to do it at our own pace. And we need to look after our own best interests, with the support of the public in doing so.”

Council voted it down.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

This is the first story of The Sprawl's new pop-up: The Plebiscite Edition. If you value independent Calgary journalism, please sign up as a monthly supporter of The Sprawl. We're crowdfunded, ad-free and made in Calgary. Join the 500+ Calgarians who support The Sprawl!

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!