CALGARY, Alberta — Hobbled by a reputation for gross expense and corruption, the International Olympic Committee has become a mendicant, shuffling from nation to nation, shaking its cup and asking if anyone might be interested in bidding on the 2026 Winter Games.
The Norwegians, the greatest of all Winter Olympic countries, found too many expenses and too much potential environmental damage. Pass. In Innsbruck, Austria, which hosted the 1976 Winter Games, the burghers shook their heads and voted no. A canton in Switzerland, home of the I.O.C., voted to bolt the door.
So Olympic officials turned their eyes to Calgary, the lively Canadian city that hosted the 1988 Winter Games. They murmured softly and smiled sweetly and asked: Might you like to bid?
Calgary officials nodded, yes, they might like that indeed. And the I.O.C. officials, well-heeled princelings beneath their tattered robes, smiled so broad.
This is a city brimming with optimism. Mayor Naheed Nenshi is a quick-witted urban wonk, and the city has a diverse and educated population. Its most recent public work is a breathtakingly beautiful public library that arrived on time and under budget. Hizzoner walked into a debate last week and a later interview with me intent on selling all on his vision ahead of a referendum Tuesday on whether to take the plunge.
“The International Olympic Committee does worry me and keep me up a bit at night,” Nenshi said. “But this is an outstanding deal for Calgary.”
Nenshi and his supporters propound Canadian Exceptionalism: We would stage these Games as we do everything, which is to say on budget and without corruption or toleration of doping.
You are tempted to root even as you wince. So many optimistic cities and nations have walked this path only to tumble down the Olympic stairs of inflated hopes, spiraling costs and corruptions’ bruises.
Quite a few in Calgary share my skepticism. This city will stage a plebiscite Tuesday on whether to submit a bid, and boosterish sorts admit to jumping nerves ahead of the referendum.
The city is mired in an oil and gas slump, and 25 percent its downtown towers are vacant. A survey group hired by the city surveyed more than 7,000 people and found decidedly more with a negative view of the Olympic bid. Of late, a councilor who was allied with the mayor in pushing the Olympics announced that he could no longer support a bid.
“There are too many unanswered questions and an incredible amount of risk,” the councilor, Evan Woolley, said at a public debate on the plebiscite.
No Olympic Games since 1968 has met its budget. Vancouver went a modest 13 percent over (although its athletes’ village went belly up afterward at a cost of $100 million), while other cities had Grand mal seizures. London and Sochi ran over by 76 percent and 280 percent.
When Tokyo signed on for the 2020 Summer Games, officials sounded remarkably like those in Calgary. They promised to deliver a frugal penny- and pound-wise Olympics for about $7.3 billion.
Then they adjusted estimates to $12 billion. Of late, the number has soared to $25 to $30 billion.
The Salt Lake City Games in 2002 nearly drowned in a despond of corruption; the Pyeongchang Games in February chewed up forests and pushed out villagers.
I attended the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and wrote of the corruption and violence that had fallen on the poorest in the beautiful city, and the schools and hospitals starved for funds as government spent grandly on its Olympic Taj Mahal.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, wrote a letter complaining of my calumnies and took offense at talk of corruption. Another year passed, and Brazilian prosecutors found Olympic corruption everywhere. An executive from a big construction firm testified that he gave $5 million in bribes to Paes. The former mayor denies those charges.
Calgary hired Ernst & Young to crunch its numbers. I sat in a council meeting as its sober gentlemen took us skipping through the numbers, all of which — miracle! — added up in favor of the bid.
I nosed about afterward on the internet and noticed that Ernst & Young served as a richly compensated “exclusive provider” to the Rio Olympics. Previous Olympic cities, Ernst & Young noted in a news release, had seen arenas turn into white elephants. Not Rio, no no. “We have established sustainable postgame use for facilities” through a regimen of good governance and finance, the release said.
Two years later, Rio de Janeiro is stuck with a rumbling herd of white elephants, Olympic pools filled with rat feces, and a burned and collapsed velodrome and wrecked arenas. Officials have scrapped promises to turn Olympic handball courts into four public schools. As ESPN reported, the only one of the sports federations not found implicated in corruption was the Brazilian Confederation of Sports for the Visually Impaired.
You can only hope that Olympic and perhaps Ernst & Young officials had some fitful nights of sleep.
The I.O.C. has grown edgy at the lack of suitors seeking to host Games and proclaimed itself ready to shed the tux and don the hair shirt. It introduced a “game changer” called the New Normal, which encourages construction of fewer new stadiums and would share more dollars with host cities.
So Calgary would, for the most part, refurbish facilities used in the 1988 Olympics and focus construction on a much-desired new winter field house. Their case is not vaporous, and city officials have debated it publicly.
The snow-capped wall of Rockies rise to the city’s west, and the region is rich in winter sports, because of the legacy of hosting the 1988 Games. To drive to Cranmore, a ski town that sits within the ice-blue shadow of those mountains and which would host Olympic events, is to find world-class winter athletes on nearly every block.
That said, Calgary officials take a parochial, Calgary-centric view of costs, the details of which were still being worked on in the days before the vote. Mayor Nenshi said Calgary’s share would come in at a touch more than $400 million. The provincial Alberta government would fork over $700 million, and the federal government in Ottawa has promised a barrel of money, too.
“This is almost a tax rebate,” the mayor said.
This would be so if we assume tax dollars not gathered in Calgary fall from the sky like snow. Alberta is hard-pressed by the same slump in oil revenues, and money spent renovating curling and skating rinks could mean less money to build and repair schools, roads and parks.
More broadly, Calgary officials speak of the Olympics as a defibrillator for local spirits grown gloomy. The Games offer two weeks of free global advertising.
David Finch, a professor specializing in marketing, participated in that recent debate and wove a splendid web. “We’ve got 30 years of data that shows they will come,” he said. “It is the equivalent of hosting 21 Super Bowls.”
This is debate as a P.T. Barnum marketing seminar. I called Brad Humphreys, an economics professor at West Virginia University who studies Olympic finances. He acknowledged that the Olympics make you feel good, and it’s a two-week advertisement.
The remainder is a busted model.
“There is a lot of temporary employment and no evidence of substantial economic impact,” Humphreys said. “The very fact the I.O.C. is desperate to force cities to compete to host the Games is to extract as much benefit as they can for themselves.”
Mayor Nenshi acknowledges the Olympics are no economic silver bullet. But he is convinced Calgary can game the gamers.
“I believe Calgary can host the cleanest, most cost-effective Games in history. If that’s not what they want, we’ll say, ‘Thank you.’”
As I listened, a tale from dim memory jumped to mind. Decades back, my wife and I were newly married, and we wandered in a fine mood through Manhattan and came upon a three-card-Monty game. We are city natives and knew the game was a flytrap for naïve tourists. But we watched, and by God, after awhile we had it figured out.
I raised my hand and put down a $20 bill.
The three-card-Monty curator waved me in and smiled so sweetly and set to moving his cards a little faster and a little better. I guessed wrong. Damn. We were church-mouse poor, and I needed that $20. So I put down another bill. My stupidity ended at $60 unaffordable dollars.
Here’s my advice to Calgary: Keep an eye on those I.O.C. cardsharps. I guarantee the cards will end up moving faster than you guess.