With Calgary Olympic bid in jeopardy, athletes mobilize with message to council

Olympic Rings in Calgary (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Helen Upperton was eight years old when Calgary held the Olympics in 1988 and her daughter with fellow Olympian Jesse Lumsden will be the same age in 2026 when the Games may return to the city.

But that prospect is in serious jeopardy as Calgary city council will hold a vote to reaffirm support next week on a bid, before exploring the possibility any further.

“Not necessarily yes for a bid, but yes to properly investigate whether or not we should bid as a city,” the silver-medal winning bobsleigh athlete said. “Unless we see the big picture and the whole picture, I don’t think it’s fair to stop the conversation so prematurely.”

The two-time Olympian was joined by athletes from the past, present and future at WinSport in Calgary Friday morning, presenting a united front to keep the Olympic possibility going.

Among the group was Mark Tewksbury, Kyle Shewfelt, Denny Morrison, Gilmore Junio, Seyi Smith, Jessica Zelinka, Catrina Le May Doan, Brian McKeever and Jeff Christie.

“We were really trying to be respectful of the process and not influence too much,” Tewksbury said, who won gold in swimming at the 1992 Games. “When the news came out on Tuesday of just how much in jeopardy this is, the athlete community mobilized.”

Council was originally scheduled to debate public engagement options – including a plebiscite – next week, but on Tuesday, Cllr. Druh Farrell brought forward a motion at a committee meeting to hold a vote to reaffirm support before going any further.

It passed 9-1 and after bureaucratic hiccups, allegations of favouritism and bias, as well as miscommunication with other orders of government, there’s a strong possibility enough councillors will change their minds and kill the process.

“Within three days, we’ve had hundreds of athletes sending letters to the councillors, organizing a press conference,” Tewksbury said. “Please keep the conversation going.”

On March 20, council voted 8-6 with one member absent to form the $30 million Olympic BidCo., which would develop the plan necessary to put in a formal bid to the International Olympic Committee for the 2026 Games.

But recently, Cllr. Ward Sutherland – who voted in favour of forming the BidCo. – has stated publicly he will vote no next week, citing changes from the provincial government in municipal funding, as well as unclear information from city administration.

Cllr. Diane Colley-Urquhart has also indicated it may be time to end the process, among her reasons the Alberta Government imposing a condition on the city to hold a plebiscite should it want provincial support in hosting the Games.

The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee originally came up with a figure of $4.6 billion to host, with roughly half having to come from multiple orders of government.

That figure came under scrutiny from several economic reports commissioned by the city, and didn’t take into account other costs, such as the assumption that a new hockey arena would be operational by 2026.

Another alarm bell for councillors was how the reports were made public, which were obtained by media and not widely distributed to the politicians themselves.

But council is scheduled to receive updated financial information in the summer, including a fully-costed budget, a more detailed breakdown of funding from the public and private sector and a more thorough analysis of the economic impact for the city.

Along with a plebiscite that would be required to be done between the fall and winter, the Olympians believe those numbers should be developed before ending the bid.

“I’m a business owner, I’m a parent, I pay taxes, I’ve lived in this city my whole life, if it doesn’t make sense and it looks like this is not going to be a good thing for the city, then I’ll say no,” Shewfelt said, a gold-medal winning gymnast from the 2000 Games. “But we don’t have that information yet.”

The councillors in opposition of the Games have cited multiple reasons beyond the cost itself, which some believe will go well above the estimated $4.6 billion.

Among the reasons is skepticism in trusting the International Olympic Committee, a lack of public consultation, miscommunication with the provincial government and a perceived bias within the city administration to host the Games.

One of the staunchest councillors against the Games, Sean Chu, recently said at a council meeting to Mayor Naheed Nenshi, “we all know you want the Olympics.”

The Olympians have echoed Nenshi’s message from earlier this week that council shouldn’t make a decision without getting the fully-costed numbers, although he agrees there have been missteps along the way.

“I share the frustration of last-minute changes by other orders of government, I share the frustration of reports that are not clear enough,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say it’s a bit in the ditch. And the question is, is it worth pulling out of the ditch or not? And I think it is.”

One of the key pluses among Olympic proponents is the new and updated infrastructure that would come as a result of bidding for the Games.

As many have noted, the facilities from 1988 Games are still readily in use and are a major part of Calgary’s identity after putting the city ‘on the map’ 30 years ago.

But those facilities are in need of being upgraded at the risk of eventually going out of service and many of Calgary’s Olympic athletes train in the city and the province.

Some of those facilities are also partially funded by legacy money from the 1988 Games.

“That legacy is soon going to run out,” former Olympian Catrina Le May Doan said, who was part of the CBEC committee before it was disbanded. “I don’t want the Oval to close, I don’t want WinSport closed, I don’t want Canmore to close.”

“What happens after that, do myself and other taxpayers then fund that or do we have an opportunity as Mark Tewksbury said, to work with the federal government, work with the provincial government and continue to have a legacy for not just sport, but a legacy for facilities.”

The athletes aren’t alone, as the Calgary Chamber of Commerce also voiced its support to continue the process a few hours after the athletic rally.

Another concern is going into the business with the IOC amidst its recent scandals, a fact acknowledged by Tewksbury, a former Team Canada Chef de Mission, who has been highly critical of the organization.

“I still have a healthy skepticism about the bidding process in all of this, but I do believe in my heart at that the moment with the IOC, there’s a lot of misinformation,” he said, noting more Canadians are involved with the committee. “I do believe there’s a genuine openness to do things differently.”

Lucas Meyer is a reporter and producer for 660News in Calgary. He is also the play-by-play voice of the University of Calgary Dinos basketball teams. Follow him on Twitter @meyer_lucas.

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