The great city of Calgary, Alberta, home of the Calgary Flames, are currently mulling a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. As most things related to the International Olympic Committee go – given the 2002 Salt Lake City corruption charges, the wonkiness of the entire Sochi Games and the well-publicized ills of the Rio Games – many people are rightfully nervous about the prospect of a bid.
The Olympics are a big, sometimes scary animal. They’re expensive, in part because they are thinly disguised attempts to redistribute cash and infrastructure under the guise of sport. That said, they can be transformative – most arguments in favour of a Calgary 2026 bid point to the massive influx of resources for Canadian winter sports that have set up western Canada as a world-renowned training center for speed skating, skiing and various other endeavours involving ice, snow and Canadians.
Add in their ability to galvanize a community around a single goal and rally everybody together, and the city suddenly had an identity and sense of togetherness that extended beyond animosity towards Eastern Canada (or Edmonton).
Would pursuit of a 2026 bid be a good idea? A bad idea? A wildly expensive idea? To evaluate the possibility of a bid (which would probably involve a new building for the playing of ice hockey given the age and condition of the Saddledome), let’s jump in our time machine and take a look to the 1988 Olympics. What did Calgary get out of the Olympics, and who paid for it?
Calgary was a much different place way back in 1988. Best known as a second-tier oil town that hosted a pretty decent rodeo, the city had a population of about 600,000 when it bid (and just over that during the games). But through a combination of bold spending – construction on the Olympic Saddledome had already begun prior to the announcement of the host city by the IOC – and a commitment to volunteerism that got average Calgarians emotionally involved in the event.
I was just a toddler during the ’88 Games, and I have adorable photos of myself in a tiny snowsuit from that era that my parents trot out from time to time. The bid was Calgary’s fourth kick at the can, and after failing three times (and spending money developing three bids) it seemed like the organizers finally figured the darn thing out.
Also of note? The only major “scandal” of the ’88 Olympics involved a ticketing manager who tried to get American ticket purchasers to pay in more-valuable American funds and also had them send payment to his own company rather than the Olympic Organizing Committee. Ticketing was a big issue for the games, as demand to see Canada’s first Winter Games far out-stripped the supply – and that was before the extensive ticketing needs of the various Olympic sponsors.
WHAT GOT BUILT?
The 1988 Olympics resulted in the construction of the Olympic Saddledome, Father David Bauer Arena, the Olympic Oval, Canada Olympic Park and the Olympic Village in Calgary, as well as the Canmore Nordic Center and Nakiska out of town. (Renovations were also conducted in Max Bell Arena and McMahon Stadium.) There was also a media village by Broadcast Hill constructed.
In coincident infrastructure news, the northwest leg of the C-Train was completed prior to the Olympics (running from the west end of downtown to the University, where the Olympic Village was located). The extension was part of a previously-funded push to build light rail throughout the city, primarily funded by the provincial government. (It’d be a stretch to label the LRT expansion as “Olympic-related,” though it happened at about the same time.)
HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
U of C economist Trevor Tombe put together a really nice flowchart.
— Trevor Tombe (@trevortombe) August 23, 2016
It’s unclear how much the bid process itself cost.
The capital infrastructure necessary for the games themselves (the venues) cost roughly $405 million, funded primarily through the federal ($200 million) and provincial ($133 million) governments. The operation of the Olympics themselves cost just under $527 million.
When you adjust for inflation (into 2010 dollars for comparison’s sake), the venues cost $660 million and the operations cost $860 million.
DID THE GAMES MAKE MONEY?
It depends what you mean by “the games.” When you focus on the amount of money spent on hosting the games (and the infrastructure necessary for the endeavour), they spent about $932 million and took in revenues of $559 million. But if you accept the capital costs as a sunk cost and focus just on the operation of the Olympic Games themselves, then yes, the 1988 Olympics made money.
(CalgaryPuck user Frequitude put it thusly: “The ’88 Olympics made a profit and spurred a $405M capital investment,” which is a statement of fact that sort of nudges you to ponder the value of that $405 million capital expenditure.)
The surplus from the operation of the games themselves were $32 million, which were bundled with some other funding and provided the initial funding for the Calgary Olympic Development Assocation (CODA), today known as Winsport.
WHO PAID FOR EVERYTHING?
The capital investments were made entirely by government bodies: roughly $200 million from the federal government, $133 million from the province and $43 million from the city.
Television revenues made up the bulk of the operating revenues – $326 million or about 58.3% – with sponsors, ticket sales and the federal government also kicking in some funds.
WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO SHOW FOR IT?
Today, the Olympic funding lives on as the Saddledome, Father David Bauer Arena, the Olympic Oval, Canada Olympic Park (and the Winsport Complex), the student residence towers at the U of C, the Canmore Nordic Centre and Nakiska.
Everything’s a bit older, and many of these venues have required renovations here and there given they were built in the ’80s, but they’re all still used. Several of them are still used for high-level competitions in the realms they were originally built for.
We also gained the greatest legacy of all: a pair of polar bears dressed like cowboys that served as Calgary’s mascots until 2007.