The Road to 2026: Calgary’s 1988 Legacy

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?

LOOKING BACK

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.

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.

  • Longshot1977

    As long as they keep Heidi and Howdy, I’m all in for the Olympic bid.

    On a serious note, while I agree it’s somewhat misleading to say that Calgary ’88 “made money”, I do honestly believe that this may have been one of the precious few cases where an Olympics has actually had a tangible long-term benefit to a region.

    The facilities are 30 years old, and still useful. The sport programs located in Calgary and serving all of Canada have produced results. While increased “exposure” or ‘”tourism” might be a little tricky to measure, the general impression I have always had as a Calgarian speaking to non-Calgarians is that they believe ’88 presented Calgary and Western Canada in a very positive light and as a wonderful place to visit.

    I’ve heard some speculation that some may even serve the 2026 games with only upgrading or renovations required, which could mean huge savings.

    BTW, RP, I too have some semi-embarrassing photo evidence from ’88. I was in Grade 6, and my class participated in the Opening Ceremonies, in shiny spacesuit looking parkas and boots. Yikes!

  • jupiter

    Just the kind of project JR loves.He can play Santa handing out the buckets of money, There will be lots of photo-ops for him, and he can bring in more refugees to put up the buildings.

  • The Fall

    That flow chart shows that Calgary got $405M worth of facilities from $376M worth of public money.

    Don’t forget that the $526M worth of expenses are mostly handled by the local economy. That means local trades, suppliers, utilities, designers, engineers, staffing are all making money to put on the event.

    I feel these events are too expensive, and they should not be put ahead of basic human rights. Places like Rio should likely be ‘investing’ in other places to ensure the safety and health of their populations. I would vote ‘yes’ for another Games in Western Canada.

    • PrairieStew

      There is a school of thought that says bringing the Games does help lift these countries up, and brings overall awareness to their condition. Didn’t help Sarajevo – war and division soon followed and all the money spent on facilities was wasted. Athens 2004 didn’t help their financial status either. The IOC is (rightfully for the most part) accused as an old boys club; keeping the Games in only “rich; countries helps perpetuate that.

      Everything is too expensive ! I remember when the over runs on the Saddledome were hitting the news in 82/83 it was pointed out that Edmonton had built Northlands Coliseum less than 10 years earlier for $17.3 million – roughly what the Saddledome was over – and the Dome ended up almost 6 times as much in the end.

      Today – as Edmonton prepares to open their new $480 M (budget – not final numbers) arena, Northlands is proposing a $100 m renovation to the old rink to convert it to an 8 sheet community facility !

      A Calgary bid would certainly have to be cheaper than the 1.8 billion spent by Vancouver. A $500 m rink, another $200 m in facility upgrades perhaps….

  • PrairieStew

    That’s a pretty good chart. There is a flow from the OCO money to the facility line, so it is clear that facilities were not 100% government. The “other facility spending” of $136 million is gigantic though. Father David Bauer, Max Bell and what ? Atco trailers ? If the Saddeldome cost $97m, how does other miscellaneous stuff add up to $136 ? Does that include the new residences built at U of C ? “Contributions to Sport $76” and “Other expenses $91 ” in the OCO budget are also really high and what are they for ?

    I’m going to disagree with the assertion on the NW LRT line – that happens maybe 5 to 10 years later if there is no Olympics.

    If you just consider what the Oval and COP have done for sport at all levels, and for the University, and what the Nordic Centre has meant to Canmore – the government investment has been worth it.

  • al rain

    I’ve seen all of two Flames games at the Saddledome but my family skis and bikes at the Canmore Nordic Centre all year round. I know this is not strictly about me, but I’d have to say I got my money’s worth out of ’88 and I’m happy to call that good and let the circus move on.

  • Derzie

    The costs and benefits are very different this time around. It is more than just adjusted dollars on the cost side. We are looking at billions all-tolled. Also, the benefits would not be as drastic given we already have the facilities supporting winter sports. They may get expanded or refurbished which is of value but there is also talk of straight up replacement which may leave some husks that used to be buildings around the city. The Olympics are a money pit no matter the circumstance but the games themselves and the impact on future athletes is very positive. We would be better served to properly fund the athletes we have (like the US and Australia do) before we embark on another games bid.

  • freethe flames

    Is the idea of a bid not just a way of speeding up the discussion of building new facilities? I love when people discuss that there was money from the various levels of government but the reality there is only one tax base with three different hands in our wallets.

    Again unless the owners are prepared to pay more for their facilities and revenue share to lessen the burden on the taxpayers then no and don’t try and hide behind national or civic pride.