The Road to 2026: Calgary’s Risks and Rewards

The Olympics definitely have their downsides and detractors, as we’ve discussed in some detail over the past few days. But there are a lot of people that have a sentimental attachment to the games, as the 1988 Olympics were huge for Calgary stepping into global prominence. And while the Olympics of the modern era may in fact be a device for wealth transfer, throwing a bunch of shiny baubles into a tiny geographic area, holding some sporting events and then asking the governments of the day to pay for it afterwards, is it possible for that model to work in Calgary’s favour?

If you are, like me, still somewhat optimistic that Calgary can host a 2026 Olympic Winter Games that can have a net positive result for the city (and the sporting infrastructure, amateur and otherwise, in the general area), what would that Olympics look like?

First and foremost, let’s get one thing out of the way: it appears that the IOC is pretty excited that Calgary is even thinking about putting together a bid for 2026, according to a comment from Calgary Sports Tourism Authority chair Doug Mitchell: “The IOC have actually even already asked the COC if they thought we would be putting a bid forward for Calgary.”

For the record, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi went to the Rio Olympics. He’s a huge fan of the Olympics, having attended the 1988 event as a 16-year-old. While Nenshi was just there on vacation and reports are that nobody officially associated with the bid development were in Rio, it’s probably naive to believe that Nenshi – who does his homework before diving into situations – didn’t chat with people on an informal basis about Rio’s experience or the Olympics in general. He’s not going to go into this process blind.

While chatting with our friends at Sportsnet 960 The Fan following the announcement of the bid development phase, Nenshi had two separate comments that probably summed up what he (and the city) probably hope to get out of the bidding:

“I’ll be very, very blunt with you, this is an opportunity if we move
forward with this bid for us to export Calgary and Canadian values into
this process,” he said. “It means we’re going to do it clean, we’re
going to do it honestly.”

“Finding the funding for LRT extension to the airport would be
incredibly hard without a catalyst event like this, so there’s a real
opportunity there for economic and social development.”

Let’s be really honest here: the federal and provincial government are both on an infrastructure kick, as it’s probably the only way to run budget deficits and still be able to sell it to the electorate. But their ability to sink funds into a money-pit Olympics is minimal, so a 2026 Olympics that results in a few strategic new pieces of infrastructure – such as a potential new home for the Calgary Flames – and perhaps an LRT extension to the airport would have to have a really smart budget and maximize the existing sporting infrastructure in the Calgary area.

LET’S TALK VENUES

Using the list of events and venues from the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea as a guide, I’ve briefly sketched out a few ideas for what venues could end up being used (or reused) for 2026, and which holes would need to be filled somehow.

Opening and
closing ceremonies
McMahon Stadium
Men’s ice hockey New Arena (or Saddledome)
Women’s Ice Hockey Markin MacPhail Center at Winsport
Curling Max Bell Arena
Speed skating Olympic Oval
Figure skating New Arena (or Saddledome)
Ski jumping ???
Snowboarding ???
Cross-country skiing
Biathalon
Canmore Nordic Centre
Luge
Bobsleigh
Skeleton
Winsport
Slalom
Giant Slalom
???
Media Centre
Broadcast Centre
BMO Centre
or Telus Convention Centre
Olympic Village ???

First thing’s first: how many arenas would be necessary? The short answer? One more than they have. The Flames building (the Saddledome or a new barn) could handle men’s hockey while the Markin MacPhail Centre at Winsport could easily handle the women’s tournament, but scheduling would mean that you couldn’t cram all the hockey into one building. The speed skating (long and short track) could probably all be staggered in the Olympic Oval, which would need a bit of refurbishing and perhaps some additional seating. And curling could probably be housed at Max Bell, which would also need some work. But that leaves the bid needing a figure skating venue. In an ideal world, the bid would result in a new building (where men’s hockey would go) while the Saddledome would be used for figure skating. (If a new building results in the Saddledome being decommissioned before the Olympics, or
there’s simply no money for a new building, you could always utilize the
Centrium in nearby Red Deer, too.)

There are a lot of great skiing facilities between Calgary and the Rockies. You could probably put some of the snowboard half-pipe events at Canada Olympic Park if you really needed to, but it’s also likely that the various snowboarding and downhill skiing events could go into the existing nearby mountain resorts (with a bit of work to their facilities). The cross-country events could probably go to the Canmore Nordic Centre (perhaps with a bit of refurbishment). The sliding events could probably be held at the existing facilities at Winsport. They’d need to find a place to do the ski-jumping events, though, as the current COP jumps are a tad small by modern standards.

The Corral is planned to be moth-balled and incorporated into a BMO Centre expansion, as they need more capacity for bigger events. Between that planned expansion and the existing big facilities at the Telus Convention Centre, the media and broadcast facilities likely fit in with existing plans for Stampede Park.

What would need to be built? Probably an arena, perhaps some additional skiing and snowboarding facilities, and almost definitely an Olympic Village. Maybe new ski jumps. Existing facilities in the Calgary area would be reused wherever possible, but it’s also likely that a fair amount of money would need to be spent for upgrades to get everything up to IOC standards.

SUM IT UP

Could the 2026 Winter Olympics be a chance for city council and the Flames to have their cake and eat it, too? The modern Olympics are, at their heart, a cash grab. The city wants to get some funding for transportation infrastructure, and the Olympics represent perhaps the best chance for a game-changing LRT to the airport. For the Flames, and likely a lot of the winter sports community, it represents a great chance to get an injection of government cash into some aging facilities (and perhaps get a couple new ones built). Odds are that the city will have a fairly well-developed Plan B from the Flames for a new arena – likely one ear-marked for Stampede Park – on their hands by the end of this year. A little bit after that, the bid exploration committee should have a rough plan of what facilities need upgrades, what needs to be built, and begin shaking trees to see what money is available (which will probably dictate the feasibility of the bid).

If the Flames ownership is willing to kick in some money for a new arena, and the federal and provincial governments are willing to help out the city fund some upgrades to facilities (and perhaps kick in some funding for an LRT to their airport like they did in Vancouver), the 2026 bid suddenly begins to sound pretty decent. But it’s far from a slam-dunk, as the preceding statement included several things that are far from sure bets.

A 2026 Olympics could be really, really expensive. But it could result in a new building for the Flames, as well as a bunch of new (or upgraded) resources for sports in the Calgary area. By the end of the 2016-17 NHL season in April, we should have a much clearer idea of what’s going to happen with both the proposed new Flames arena and the possibility of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics. The two proposals are independent of each other, but because the feasibility of one is so closely tied with the other, they’re now likely to be inextricably linked.

  • slapshot444

    Great article Ryan, There is just beginning in Calgary to have a wave of momentum for the 2026 bid. All the stars may be aligning in terms of timing and other cities competing. Salt lake would be the bigger competitor. Canada has had the winter games much more recently than the USA but Salt Lake is still not far away from their last games. Calgary has an excellent chance of beating Salt Lake and the two previous games ( 2022 and 2018 ) will have been in the Orient. NBC will be pushing for them back in the North American time zone which will give us the nod over Innsbruck Austria, perhaps the next biggest threat.
    RE the facilities a few points to note. I wouldn’t rule our sharing a rink / Stadium with Edmonton. Its absolutely pointless to build an extra in Calgary just to accommodate the busy schedule of hockey and figure skating.
    As well since ’88 the requirement for seats in the venues is higher so either seats have to be added or a deal made with the IOC to approve facilities like Father David Bower. And don’t rule out a deal being made, IOC has stated that smaller venues and more TV coverage is the future, in particular for the summer games.
    Re the Bobsled track at COP, Its need to be rebuilt / replaced at this time as its at the best before date right now. The ski jumps thankfully, as visible as they are are relatively inexpensive to replace / and or re fit. Lake Louise hosts a world cup annually and is currently ready, more so than Nakasika who hosted the ’88 skiing.
    Another change since ’88 is the number of press that attend. The number is staggering and each venue would need modification just for the press accommodation.
    Finally re the Olympic Village, the easiest of challenges as city hall seems to have an endless requirement for low income housing, the only decision would be where.

    • Greg

      Fully agree with the idea of utilizing Edmonton’s arena for some events… Moving a couple of the hockey pool groups there until the quarterfinals makes a heckuvalot more sense than building a second arena (I’m assuming by 2026 the flames will have a new “Plan B” arena on the stampede grounds and the saddledome won’t be around as a result). And utilizing Lake Louise for the downhill skiing is a great idea too… If we’re going to make this fiscally sound (and the IOC is serious about putting less financial burden on hosts), then re-using existing facilities and instead spending money to widen the highway to Canmore or Banff and running shuttles from there is the right way to go. A Ctrain to the airport would be awesome as well.

      In general, I’m all for hosting the olympics again as long as the bulk of any spending (and certainly any public deficit amounts) go into that kind of infrastructure that we need anyway.

      • slapshot444

        Greg
        I’m laughing at your post only because it got a bunch on thumbs down ONLY because you agree with using something in Edmonton

        The hate for that place, while very substantiated, always amazes me.
        I don’t think I’ve ever seen two very different cites so close together.
        Regardless of how much we hate the Oil its not reason to not poach the use of their new arena for a couple of weeks and save ourselves some dough.

        • Greg

          Ya, arguing for things that make sense will get you no where on an Internet forum :P. Rio used soccer stadiums in other cities, and the IOC has said they are even open to bids involving multiple countries now, so hosting some of the hockey games in Edmonton makes complete sense. Just keep Canada’s pool in Calgary – they can have the Russia’s and Latvians :P.

  • Flamethrower

    Go away, been there, done that. This province is in no way financially strong enough to pull this off again. This comes from one who had front line knowledge of the happenings…
    This would put us in a hole that the province would take 25 years to dig out of. So I for one would not like to leave this legacy to our kids to pay for.
    Let someone else line the pockets of CODA and the IOC and not with my tax dollars.
    We can’t even afford to build facilities for the pro teams in this city now.

    PS I feel that the Flames organization should be on the hook for at least 70% of these said facilities. These are for profit companies and at a minimal should tax dollars be used.

    Just saying my humble opinion…

    • slapshot444

      The games are 2026 as I’m sure you know, oil will have cycled back up, as it always has. The province will be a very different place.
      FYI Vancouver hosted a relatively expensive games as it was built from scratch for the most part. And don’t forget the money plowed into the Whistler highway. Even then the games did not leave them with a debt legacy as you are predicting for Calgary.
      The board on the initial bid committee are excellent people and there’s no way there will be a recommendation to go forward if the project is completely unaffordable.
      Have a little faith, its going to be great!!