Published On: Wed, Nov 14th, 2018

Calgary’s Olympic spirit put out after decisive plebiscite

CALGARY – The Olympic flame was officially extinguished in Calgary on Feb. 28, 1988.

The Olympic spirit this city has rallied around ever since may have died Tuesday.

Unsuccessful organizers of a yes vote may beg to differ, insisting they simply ran out of time on a bid to bring back the five ring circus.

However, what was definitive in a city-wide Olympic plebiscite that found 56 per cent of a massive turnout vote ‘no’ to pursuing the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games is that $ 4 billion tabbed for the bid won’t be coming here to help mend a troubled economy.

“It’s a massive missed opportunity and that’s sad,” said Steve King, whose father, Frank, was the man who brought the Games to Calgary in 1988.

“It’s not where my city is going – I think we can do better.”

The question of whether the city will even attempt to do better in four or eight years down the road is a question for another day. (Although Mayor Naheed Nenshi insisted he has no interest in renewing the debate for the 2030 Games.)

On this night the question revolved around where it all went wrong for a city that had most of the infrastructure needed to submit a frugal bid.

Alas, the bungling by city hall and the federal government 13 days earlier that almost killed the plebiscite gave supporters a short runway in which to operate a campaign in which separating fact from fiction became almost impossible.

Misinformation ruled the day as local and federal politicians took turns damaging the ill-fated bid.

The ‘no’ side preyed on the fear of cost overruns, despite assurances the federal government would foot the security bill regardless of size.

Those who voted in advance polls a week earlier leaned heavily towards the ‘no’ side.

Despite tremendous momentum the last several days, the ‘yes’ vote ran out of time.

The non-binding plebiscite was one of the conditions of the $ 700 million the province was willing to put forth for a Games that also would have included $ 1.4 billion from the federal government and $ 390 million from the city of Calgary.

However, despite promising Calgarians that all the information would be set in stone 30 days before anyone had to vote on it, that funding model was very much in question 13 days ago when city council moved to kill the bid.

The bid was modified at the 11th hour with a revamped funding model, but the damage had been done as the trust of a city council that had been damaged throughout the process was crushed that day.

“I wish we had more time, but we didn’t – we had 13 days,” said two-time Olympic gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan.

“It wasn’t ideal. If this was a race it’s not the way you plan a training program. When you have a set plan and there’s an injury at some point it’s not ideal.

“’No’ is easy. ‘Yes’ takes work. ‘Yes’ took a lot of digging and asking questions and people are busy. I’m so happy people came out to vote and wanted to have a say.”

They did so in huge numbers, as almost half the electorate of 760,000 people came out.

In the end, 171,750 (56.4 per cent) voted ‘no’, and 132,832 voted ‘yes’.

“We don’t know yet what went wrong – we’ll reflect on that,” said Calgary 2026 Bid Corporation board chair Scott Hutcheson amidst a deflated Yes party at Vagabond restaurant that included some tears, plenty of disbelief and lots of anger.

“There are a lot of lessons learned. We’re not going to blame anyone. Maybe nothing went wrong – maybe this community doesn’t want an Olympics.”

He went on to suggest he thinks seven years from now would be the earliest the city should consider returning to the most divisive debate this city has seen in decades.

The voter turnout spoke to that.

“We gave a thorough budget Sept. 11 and we changed six numbers – it was complicated – unnecessarily complicated, and that’s unfortunate,” said Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran.

“We did the best we could with what we were dealt.

“We always knew we had a short runway. I still really believe in this city and we need to embrace this energy we had in this discussion and move forward in a more united fashion.”

That wont be easy, as so much was hung on the Olympics being a solution to helping an economy devastated by the sagging oil and gas industry.

“I’m not sure that I would agree with the assertion that something went wrong in the campaign because ultimately it’s about listening to the people and the best campaign in the world is not smarter than the wisdom of the people,” said Nenshi, the biggest backer of the bid, yet one who will take the most heat for its failure.

“Ultimately if this is what the people said in a democracy the people are always right.

Council will vote Monday to spike the Calgary 2026 Olympic dream.

Well into the night the Olympic-style flames atop the Calgary tower burned as they did in 1988.

No longer, and perhaps never again.

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Calgary’s Olympic spirit put out after decisive plebiscite