Skip to content

Sentiments split on Games bid

While the warm fuzzy feelings of a record medal haul for the national team at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics might be in the minds of many Canadians, for residents of Canmore the focus is squarely set on the future of what a 202
The Calgary ’88 Olympic Logo is installed on the lawn of the old Canmore Town Office (Historic image refrence 1000_380_04007).
The Calgary ’88 Olympic Logo is installed on the lawn of the old Canmore Town Office (Historic image refrence 1000_380_04007).

While the warm fuzzy feelings of a record medal haul for the national team at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Paralympics might be in the minds of many Canadians, for residents of Canmore the focus is squarely set on the future of what a 2026 Games could mean for the community.

Last year, the City of Calgary began exploring the possibility of bidding for the mega sporting event, establishing a bid exploration committee and committing $6 million to undertaking a conceptual analysis of what it would mean financially, as well as logistically, to host a Games.

So far, the work has pegged the cost of an event in Calgary, with Canmore as a likely co-host, at $4.6 billion. But the final decision on whether to bid (which would cost $30 million on its own) isn’t expected until this summer, when more refined cost estimates, provincial and federal commitments are expected to be finalized.

The Olympic brand isn’t what it used to be, with huge cost overruns and corruption issues that have plagued the International Olympic Committee. Host countries are left holding the bill with respect to costs, while facilities are left to fall into disrepair without long-term plans for recreational use.

In an effort to change the tune, the IOC launched Olympic Agenda 2020 with 40 recommendations to safeguard the event and place a focus on reduced costs and the possibility of re-using facilities from prior Games.

That is where the possibility of a Calgary 2026 Winter Olympics gained traction within sport and event circles in the city and it has been met with optimism from IOC officials quoted as saying the city has good arguments in its favour to host again.

In the running to possibly bid for 2026 are cities in Switzerland (Sion), Turkey (Erzurum), Austria (Innsbruck), Sweden (Stockholm) and Japan (Sapporo), while the U.S. Olympic Committee has indicated it won’t bid for either a possible Denver or Salt Lake City Games.

Things got interesting with a possible Calgary bid when city officials mistakenly posted on Friday (March 16) a report as part of a council agenda package indicating the provincial and federal governments have confirmed financial support for a bid – but it was quickly retracted.

Town of Canmore officials reported to council in March on the community consultation process so far, and launched phase two of that work on Monday (March 19) to gauge public sentiment concerning challenges and opportunities hosting another Olympics would have for the mountain community.

“The public engagement has been focused on hearing the public’s priorities and concerns over the potential Olympic bid,” said manager communication Robyn Dinnadge. “A primary purpose of the public engagement was to reflect those priorities and concerns into draft principles that could guide (council) as you consider Canmore’s participation in a potential bid.

“We will be back to present the final principles to council and inform the public on how their input would be used.”

It has been exactly 30 years since Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Games, a watershed moment for the Olympic movement that saw a financially successful event held and organized at venues in the city, Canmore Nordic Centre and Nakiska in Kananaskis Country.

In his 1991 book It’s How You Play the Game: the inside story of the Calgary Olympics, one of the architects of Calgary’s successful 1982 bid for the Games, Frank W. King, details the process and timelines the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA) undertook to make it happen.

Now the Calgary Winter Sport Institute, or Winsport, the organization that set out to bring the Olympics to Canada undertook the sixth bid in the country’s history, and the fourth bid for Calgary with tight timelines and little experience.

Not only were organizers focused on how to host a successful Olympics, from a financial as well as sport event perspective, they identified three legacies they wanted to leave behind.

“First, we wanted to leave new sports facilities – places for people,” King wrote in his book. “Every great city has great places for recreation and cultural activities. Second, we wanted to leave a legacy of money. We began developing plans for funding the operating costs of the facilities after the Games, and for funding the training of future young athletes. Finally, we wanted to create a legacy of people: not only athletes, but coaches, officials, and spectators who enjoyed participating in sport.”

The long-term legacy of Calgary and the region as a centre for winter sport athletic development can be seen in the latest Canadian Olympic Committee team sent to South Korea. Of 226 athletes who competed, 82 live in Alberta (36 per cent of the entire team) and, of those, 20 live in Canmore and 25 in Calgary.

Winsport continues to fund amateur sport and its legacy facilities through a $130 million endowment left from the 1988 Games.

Canmore’s manager of recreation, Jim Younker, who has been assigned to the bid committee process, said the work that is expected to be presented to Calgary city council this summer won’t recommend whether to bid or not to bid, but instead would provide the best case scenario if an Olympic Games were to occur.

“The committee was organized to keep the ball rolling on the process and start to look at what a bid might look like and see if ultimately the provincial and federal governments would participate in developing an actual bid for the games,” Younker said.

“That does not necessarily mean Calgary is committing to the Games, but they need a certain amount of information to determine if they should proceed or not.”

Younker spent seven years as chief operating officer at Winsport, giving him a strong background in winter sport and recreation to take on the role of Canmore’s representative on the committee.

In addition to reporting back to the municipality and representing Canmore through the process, Younker has been tasked with developing plans for the snow venues, should a bid occur.

Those details lead into a better understanding of the final cost – both capital and operational – for hosting an Olympics, he said, adding legacy venues from 1988 continue to be vibrant locations for sport and recreation.

With 175 world cup events hosted at legacy venues like the Nordic Centre since 1988 – an average of eight to 10 per year – Younker said the Olympics changed the paradigm for winter sports for the community, region and country.

The new vision would extend beyond 2026 and into the future of what would be the continued legacy of hosting another Games here.

“We are not preparing for the wedding, we are preparing for the marriage and the success is where are we at the 10 year anniversary after the event?” Younker said. “What we are focusing on as we look at events and venues is what is the use after the Games? Does the business plan make sense? Are we creating wider recreational opportunities?

“For a lot of these facilities, it is how they sustain themselves financially. Recreation generates revenue, elite sports don’t generate revenue.”

Canmore has committed $200,000 to the bid exploration process, which also paid for Chief Administrative Officer Lisa de Soto and Mayor John Borrowman to attend the PyeongChang Winter Games in South Korea in February as part of the International Olympic Committee’s observer program. Younker and general manager of municipal services Sally Caudill attended the Paralympic events this month.

The municipality hosted its first open house in February for the community to understand issues, concerns, and opportunities residents feel should be considered by decision makers. An online survey was also offered to the public and a second one has launched this week.

But the public is not being asked if Canmore should be part of an Olympic bid, and if ultimately successful, in co-hosting a 2026 event.

“Council is going to make the decision of should we or shouldn’t we,” de Soto said. “What they want to understand from residents are what are their concerns and could those concerns be mitigated and are there real opportunities that will help us achieve the objectives we want to achieve, regardless of whether the Olympics come?”

There are many items on the long-term capital plan for the municipality that Borrowman has referenced when speaking about the possibility of Olympics coming to Canmore. That includes transportation and transit-related infrastructure and affordable housing, as well as a long put-off downtown enhancement plan.

But while there are obvious tangibles when it comes to what an Olympic Games might leave Canmore with, it is the intangibles that have people in the community, such as longtime resident Brian Callaghan, concerned.

Callaghan was here in ’88, and counts an Olympic biathlete among his family members, so he understands the appeal of hosting another Games. But what concerns him are the effects another Olympics could have on a community that already struggles with the highest cost of living in Alberta and housing prices that exceed the reach of many who have grown up in the community.

“My concern now is that if Canmore gets rediscovered a second time and gets that adrenalin steroid shot of assessment and people’s interest, I worry that some of the things we hold dear might be subject to inflationary factors beyond our control and unintended outcomes like there was in ’88. But there was room to grow back then,” he said.

Callaghan questioned what costs the municipality would be left with after the Olympics. Once the party is over, he said, what would local taxpayers be left with in terms of financial responsibilities.

“I need a lot more solid information before I can say, ‘yeah,’ and I can see myself for the community good being part of whatever the consequences are,” he said.

Canmore resident and business owner Jeff Mah is also cautious about the possibility of an Olympics being hosted in Canmore. He said the event is so large in scope that the community needs to tread carefully and be mindful of the fact there is a limited land base in Canmore to host an event this size.

“I feel what happens is people can get lost in the glamour of having the Olympics and this can easily become a Trojan horse project where a lot of things are ponied inside the Trojan horse and, after the event is done, we are left holding the bag,” Mah said. “We don’t have a lot of cards to play and coming to the table in a big game we have to make sure we play it right.”

He said he hopes elected officials are considering the ramifications of an Olympic event beyond just hosting the event and are casting their vision forward into the future.

At the open house and through survey results, concerns over transportation and traffic congestion, unaffordability of housing, poverty and social exclusion, harm to wildlife and the physical footprint of the events were expressed.

But there was also keen support from some residents who would like to see Canmore host another Olympics.

“I am all for it,” said Glen Crawford, whose two daughters have competed at multiple Olympics in biathlon and cross-country skiing. “I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the town and community to host a world-class event. Something as big as the Olympics brings in a huge amount of issues, but ultimately I see the benefits coming out if it.”

Norbert Meier has been involved in many world cup events at the Canmore Nordic Centre as president of the Alberta World Cup Society and, as a resident of the valley since the early ’80s, he remembers the economic development created by the games after Canmore Mines closed in 1979.

Meier said the community was a different place and the conversation around hosting the Games was held in an entirely different context and its legacy with the Nordic Centre continues to support the local economy year-round.

“I think we underestimate how important and how valuable the Nordic Centre has been to the community of Canmore 12 months of the year,” he said. “We have a world class asset … I truly believe we don’t have a full measure of the value it brings to town.”

Meier said the legacy of the Games extends beyond the facility, however, to the community and its local volunteers hosting international events, and being open to visitors from around the world.

“Probably, from my perspective, the most important legacy of the Olympics is the human side of things; the way people have embraced this role,” he said. “Whether it is summer or winter, people get involved and they help make things happen and I think the volunteer spirit is the biggest asset we have as a community.”

Meier said he is supportive of bidding for the 2026 Olympics and working with Calgary to host the event, and it is up to the community to determine what it wants in terms of a legacy. He said conversations should be around what Canmore would be in 2056, not just how it would host the sporting event locally, and what the community would gain for its future as a result.

“This will help us do things we can’t do any other way and I hope we really take that opportunity and run with it,” he said, pointing to the lack of traction successive mayors have had in getting the province to consider resort community designation for places like Canmore and Banff.

“It is a policy change and legislation change that would really be powerful in terms of what Canmore could do with that in the long term.”

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has come out as opposed to the use of Lake Louise in Banff National Park as a site for Olympic events as part of a 2026 bid. President Anne-Marie Syslak also questioned whether it is appropriate to consider Canmore and the Nordic Centre as a venue for the large sporting event.

Syslak said Canmore sits just outside the national park’s boundary and is part of the landscape when it comes to the wildlife corridor that runs through the valley and connectivity needed for species like grizzly bears to make a living in the larger regional context.

“We need to be conscious of putting any more stress on that ecosystem, which is bursting at the seams, and be mindful of that,” she said. “We know it is an incredibly valuable and rich area for wildlife. We really need to reassess if this is an appropriate activity … and based on what we know today and the science, is that something that would have long term irreversible impacts and we have to be very mindful before we make any decisions.”

She said the same is true for the area around Nakiska ski area in Kananaskis Country, and pointed out it is another highly valuable ecosystem for critical species, and another Olympic Games would not be positive for these ecosystems.

“We need to recognize the ecosystems are just as important as they were 30 years ago and 50 years ago,” Syslak said. “We do not want to see massive infrastructure and commercial development in areas already maxed out and bursting at the seams.”

Younker said the plans being developed to host a 2026 Games would include an environmental sustainability plan, as well as financial plans to ensure it would be a viable investment.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

About the Author: Rocky Mountain Outlook

The Rocky Mountain Outlook is Bow Valley's No. 1 source for local news and events.
Read more