After days of political drama, Calgary’s Olympic bid will go to a plebiscite November 13, when citizens will decide whether or not to let it live on.
As the deal on offer gets scrutinized, it’s worth considering how the city’s obsession with its image became part of the 2026 sales pitch.
Bid proponents argue that the Olympics offer an opportunity to “tell a new story” about Calgary. Numerous people have used that language, but they haven’t specified what kind of new story we ought to tell.
Perhaps the most precise explanation came from Mary Moran, CEO of the Calgary 2026 Bid Corporation (BidCo).
“[The Olympics] is a great place for us to go and tell a new story about Calgary."
"A story that’s more modern and more diverse, more innovative and more creative and more environmentally-friendly, and start to attract talent, companies, as well as investment back into this community,” she said in a CBC interview October 17.
The publicly-funded BidCo didn’t make Moran available for an interview to expand further. But clearly she’s talking about selling an image of ourselves to outside business interests—not an unfamiliar approach for Moran, who is also CEO of Calgary Economic Development (she’s on a leave of absence).
The Olympic Games are undeniably a global platform.
But pitching an Olympic bid as a chance to tell a new story about our city raises a host of questions.
Calgary has many stories—which ones do we want to elevate?
Who are we telling them to and why? And why, more than a generation after “The West Wants In,” are Calgarians still so hung up on how outsiders perceive us?
We’ve always been concerned about our image, whether driven by “Western alienation” from the eastern seats of power, envy of Toronto as a big-time corporate centre, resentment of being stereotyped as uncultured rednecks, or simply trying to get people to spend their money here.
The 1988 Winter Olympics were similarly billed as a way to put Calgary on the map, a chance to show ourselves off globally. And though the Winter Olympics were significantly smaller and more niche back then, that strategy worked—at least for a while.
Calgary has many stories. Which ones do we want to elevate?
But no Olympic city remains a fixture in the global popular imagination forever. If you doubt that, ask a millennial about the defining characteristics of Lillehammer, Norway.
Eventually, Calgary tried on new brands with slogans such as “Heart of the New West” and our current tagline, “Be Part of The Energy.”
Those slogans are more than just puns on signs.
“Marketing is about building a base level of awareness, and then being able to touch the rational or emotional dimensions of a specific audience,” said David Finch, associate professor of marketing at Mount Royal University.
In other words, figure out who you’re trying to sell to and why. “Be Part of The Energy” might work for specific audiences, but turn others off.
When Calgary was trying to get Amazon’s second headquarters last year, we highlighted our office-space vacancy rate, national healthcare system, and young, educated workforce—as well as, weirdly, our keenness to fight bears—rather than our energy sector.
So how would a modern Olympics serve modern Calgary’s image? We’re no longer an untested small city, as we were in 1988.
We’ve grown from a city of 636,107 in 1986 to nearly 1.4 million in metro Calgary today.
We’re more diverse racially, culturally and politically.
In 1991, Calgarians with a mother tongue other than English or French were 15% of the city, but that describes 29% of us today. We’re more diverse racially, culturally and politically.
“As much as our city has changed in terms of its population and its businesses, the face that the world sees has not changed very much,” said Ward 3 councillor Jyoti Gondek, a sociologist by training.
She believes outsiders still perceive Calgary as culturally similar to Texas: “Driven by establishment, people that have been in oil and gas who run in the same social circles, [who] view the world in a very specific way.”
That’s what branding yourself as the Stampede City and pushing a slogan referencing the energy industry will do.
If this kaleidoscope of civic self-images makes it hard to distill a single vision of Calgary for ourselves, selling a brand abroad need not be so challenging, if we do it wisely.
Finch believes the Olympic bid effort has suffered from a failure to figure out some basic questions.
“When it comes to allocating significant investments of dollars in the development of any product and the associated story, you have to say why and for who,” he says.
Without that clear narrative, “you’ve opened great opportunities across the spectrum on the Yes and No side to tell their own story.”
Finch adds that we need to start asking the right questions around projects, whether it’s the Olympics or something local, like the National Music Centre.
"I think it’s important for everyone to sit back and say, ‘Who matters over the next 20 years to Calgary, and how can this particular asset... be used to influence and contribute to the story of Calgary?’"
Unless we want to go back to being a one-dimensional city, our storytelling can’t be only about attracting investment and corporate talent.
And if we're going to tell a new story, we need new storytellers, not just the usual suspects. The what of the story matters, but so does who tells it.
“You can’t have the same five or ten people that are involved in every business venture or attraction effort speaking to all of the very diverse types of people that we’re trying to attract here,” says Gondek.
“Our pool of civic boosters needs to keep up with the times.”
Taylor Lambert is a Calgary writer and the author of Darwin's Moving, which won the 2018 City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.
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