Despite a love of the games, there’s no love lost for the Games

calgary-bid-plebiscite

Members of the "Yes" campaign react to the results of a plebiscite on whether the city should proceed with a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

It seems like yesterday, and forever ago.

The close of the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics in the winter of 2010 was, for Canadians, like being covered up in a warm, secure blanket on a cold winter night.

There were the usual qualms coming in, the insecurities felt by any host, the memories of disappointments past, the uncomfortable legacy of not winning a single gold medal on home soil in 1976 and 1988.

But as those Games wrapped up with men’s hockey gold — really more the cherry on top than the defining moment — we were deeply, blissfully in love. In love with the fresh-faced athletes who had represented us so magnificently, who combined competence and confidence, who rolled their sleeves up and got the job done, who pushed past the natural, national reticence and injected a bit of swagger. In love with the idea of showing off one of the most beautiful places in a vast and beautiful country to the world. In love with getting the job done and doing it right.

In love with the Olympics.

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Canadians had always been more than willing to fall under the spell of the Five Rings, whether those Games were held here or abroad, even as cynicism directed towards the International Olympic Committee reached an (entirely justifiable) fever pitch. Many of the individual sports may have remained obscure in the years between, but once the flags were raised and the cauldron lit and the anthems played, national pride could live or die with luge or biathlon or synchronized diving or trampoline. Vancouver-Whistler 2010 took that to a whole other place, and so almost from the moment the flame was extinguished, there was talk about when and where we might stage the Games again.

The sports year just concluded will be remembered for many things in Canada, the usual range of wins and losses, surprises and disappointments. It will be remembered for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, another roaring success for Canada, where our male athlete of the year, Mikael Kingsbury, filled in the one blank line on his impeccable résumé, and where Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir delivered a sporting moment for the ages.

But they will be footnotes to 2018’s lasting legacy. This was the year when the dream of another Games in Canada was pretty much extinguished.

The results of a non-binding, November plebiscite in Calgary were definitive, and erased any thought of proceeding with a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Calgary was the odds-on favourite to win that contest. Now, while perhaps, if you squint real hard, it’s possible to imagine another bid from some Canadian city somewhere down the road, it’s hard to imagine one that would be a lock to succeed.

So what happened to all of that love?

In the micro, combine low oil prices, a struggling Alberta economy, high unemployment, general unease and uncertainty with a bid that was frugal and responsible in reusing some of the facilities built for 1988, but not at all sexy; a bid that offered none of the bonus treats that Vancouver enjoyed (and yes, there’s a contradiction there — folks in tough times, who had backed a mayor when he opposed putting public money into a new rink for the Flames, pining for add-ons that would cost more money….). Add a bid organization that misread the local mood and was a little too complacent until it was too late. A lot of people thought the vote would be close, but when the result was black and white and negative, there was real shock — especially among the country’s Olympic community.

There probably shouldn’t have been, because it wasn’t only happening here. A large chunk of the world isn’t that excited about writing blank checks to the IOC anymore, in part because the economics have become obscene, in part because the Sochi doping scandal and cowardly reaction to it was a final straw. Norway, which staged the most perfect Winter Games imaginable in 1994, where the sports of snow and ice have a pure organic connection, where people ski to watch cross country ski races and kick sled to the store to get their groceries, decided to bail on 2026. The last bids standing, in Italy and Sweden, are both extremely fragile. And remember that the previous time around, the IOC was left to choose between Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing — it held its nose and opted for the economic certainty and lack of political opposition promised by the latter. There were two attractive cities for the last Summer Games in play, but rather than pit Paris versus Los Angeles as would have been the case in the past, the IOC opted for two sure things, and awarded them consecutive Olympics.

So the Calgary rejection wasn’t purely local, and it wasn’t a fluke — it was part of a larger trend. The scramble is on to find a new formula — perhaps a permanent site, perhaps (as Laurier prof and Olympic scholar Stephen Wenn has suggested) awarding consecutive Games to the same city, with the facilities devoted to training in the interim. Both might make sense, but both would require the IOC gravy train to pump the brakes, hard.

Looking ahead in sport, there are all kinds of exciting possibilities just beyond the horizon: three Canadian NHL teams capable of challenging for what would be a first Stanley Cup since 1993; the real possibility that the Toronto Raptors could win the National Basketball Association championship, which would shift the national sports culture; the Canadian Women’s National Team with a legitimate shot to win next summer’s soccer World Cup; and the most highly-anticipated prospect in franchise history making his debut for the Toronto Blue Jays.

In other words, 2019 could be one of the greatest sporting years in Canadian history.

Nearly all the other years on that list would all have an Olympic Games attached, and 2010 would be right at the top.

Now, it feels like that’s done.

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