So far, we’ve dug into the history of Canada and the Olympics. In 1988 and 2010, Canada hosted really well-regarded Winter Olympic Games. In 1988, the Olympics were relatively inexpensive and the excess funds were used to help fund winter sports in Canada. In 2010, the Olympics were much more expensive and forced a few levels of government to cover some big-ticket items.
The concept of expensive Olympics aren’t all that new. Operational costs of Olympics since Vancouver have ranged between $10.4 billion (London) and $51 billion (Sochi), and there are several prominent examples of Olympics spending millions on venues that aren’t used after the event concludes. (This Daily Mail piece chronicling the aftermath of the most expensive Winter Olympics ever is pretty stark.)
The Olympics are, above all else, a valuable brand. And in the midst of all the negative publicity of the lavish expenses of London, the bizarre spectacle of having the Sochi Olympics in a place warmer than Miami, and holding the Rio Olympics in a country undergoing political and economic upheaval (as well as constant whispers of corruption), the IOC began trying to figure out a way to clean up its image.
In many ways Agenda 2020 was a direct response to Oslo, Norway – a place you would really think would be a perfect fit as a Winter Olympics host – throwing up its hands and bailing on the bidding for the 2022 Winter Games midway through 2014 citing the many hoops the IOC was making them jump through. Compiled through 2014 by the IOC (and put into practice as 2015 began), Agenda 2020 is a set of 40 recommendations by the IOC as a “strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement.” The sprawing spectacles that push host countries into debt and make everyone grumpy as the Games are over (and the locals have to pay for the party) would be gone, replaced by smaller, sustainable affairs.
The recommendations covered several areas, notably:
- “Changes to the candidature procedure, with a new philosophy to
invite potential candidate cities to present a project that fits their
sporting, economic, social and environmental long-term planning needs.”
- “Reducing costs for bidding, by decreasing the number of
presentations that are allowed and providing a significant financial
contribution from the IOC.”
- “Adapting and further strengthening the principles of good governance and ethics to changing demands.”
Among the things that Agenda 2020 was meant to do was create more sustainable, less-expensive bids – focusing on reusing infrastructure and even enabling multi-national bidding when it made sense, rather than forcing a single area in a single country to spend billions building stuff that they wouldn’t need afterwards.
Writing for Vice Sports in the aftermath of the Rio Games, Aaron Gordon characterized the changes as such:
Although the IOC has made promises in something called Agenda 2020 about
responsible reforms, its recommendations are vague enough to approach
meaninglessness: a whole 115 words on how to make one of the most
wasteful human enterprises in existence “sustainable,” 49 words on
gender equality, another 49 words on transparency, and 32 words on
“ethics.” Predictably, Agenda 2020 has no teeth: nobody signed it,
nobody is responsible for implementing it, and nobody will be held
accountable if these things never happen.
In essence, so far seemingly nothing has changed because the people who would have to follow through on changing the system are the ones benefiting from it.
In the same piece, Gordon fairly bluntly assessed the Games themselves: “To call the Olympics a bad investment would be disingenuous, because few
actually believe the Games produce any return of public value. Study after study after study has shown they create no economic benefits, yet cities and nations
still fight to host them, always to disastrous ends.” Later, he called the games “an enormously successful
regressive wealth transfer program, taking money from the poor and
middle class via taxes and giving it to the rich.”
Dave Zirin, who’s written extensively on the Olympics throughout his career, had his own assessment of the economics of the Games in a recent interview:
Countries accrue debt coming out of the Olympics, but that burden tends
to fall on the backs of the poor, not the wealthy. You have
displacement, but that displacement actually can serve to gentrify
cities. Olympic infrastructure tends to be put in working class areas,
because rich people would never tolerate that disruption in their lives.
Afterwards, those areas become developed and people get pushed aside.
The latest round of bidding – for the 2024 Summer Olympics – is underway. The challenge for the Calgary 2026 bid is navigating important parallel paths: developing a compelling vision for a 2026 Games that could leave another sustainable legacy for Canadian winter sports, while keeping an eye on whether the Agenda 2020 reforms have actually been implemented.
When Calgary’s city council approved the initial exploratory committee for the bid back in June, major players in the city seemed rather wary of the process – despite being on-board with beginning big development.
“Hopefully under the Agenda 2020 process, the cost of bidding will
come down very, very significantly because I’ve heard incredibly
frightening numbers about what bids have cost in past Olympics,” Calgary
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.
Added Calgary Sports Tourism Authority
chairman Doug Mitchell: “We know what the terms of reference are and
we’re going to stick with that. If (Agenda) 2020 is not going to be
enacted like we think it is, then we’re not going to stay the course.”
Granted, the folks behind the Calgary bid have been working hard at coming up with a plan for a future Olympics for awhile, but is it possible for them to effectively plan a bid and keep an eye on the 2024 bidding process for any funny business? And can they minimize the amount of money they sink into developing a bid in case they need to bail out?