CALGARY — Calgary must now come to grips with how to modernize its aging sports facilities after rejecting a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.
City council hammered the final nail in the coffin of a 2026 Games bid with a unanimous vote to scuttle it Monday (Nov. 19).
The decision comes on the heels of a non-binding plebiscite, in which 56 per cent of those who went to the polls voted “no” to bidding for the Games.
Calgary was the host city of the 1988 Winter Olympics. The venues from those Games, the majority of which are still used by recreational and high-performance athletes three decades later, were the foundation of another potential bid.
They’re also a driving force behind Canada’s performances at Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Canada won a record 29 Olympic medals, including 11 gold, and another 28 Paralympic medals in Pyeongchang, South Korea, earlier this year.
But without the almost $2.2 billion in provincial and federal money tied to Calgary pursuing and winning a bid for 2026, the task of bringing the city’s major sports facilities into this century en masse is a mammoth, expensive undertaking.
McMahon Stadium, almost 60 years old, was the site of the opening and closing ceremonies in 1988 and is the home of the CFL’s Stampeders. The Saddledome, built in 1983 for both the NHL’s Flames and the Winter Games, is 35 years old.
While a new stadium and new NHL arena weren’t in the proposed draft plan for 2026, upgrades to both were.
An indoor sport fieldhouse, which has been on Calgary’s books as a recreational need for over a decade, was also in the 2026 plan.
“I was at the football game yesterday,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday. “I continue to think that McMahon is a great place to watch a football game once you’re in your seat. Getting to your seat, kind of miserable.
“This had been our plan to really re-do McMahon and make that a beautiful venue for future generations. There’s seven other venues within the city of Calgary that need that kind of rejuvenation.”
Nenshi estimated between $600 million and $700 million would be needed to both build a fieldhouse and match the investment into the ’88 legacies proposed in a 2026 bid.
“It’s going to be important to really start on that strategy now,” the mayor said. “It’s also important to recognize that we are in an environment where we are more capital-constrained than we ever have been since I’ve been in this job, meaning that council and myself and citizens are going to have to temper our expectations.”
A 2026 cost-sharing agreement between the federal, provincial and municipal governments wasn’t finalized until Oct. 31, which was less than two weeks prior to the plebiscite.
The bid corporation Calgary 2026 estimated the total cost of hosting the Games at $5.1 billion. The bidco asked for a $2.875 billion contribution split between the city, provincial and federal governments.
The Alberta government committed $700 million and the Canadian government $1.45 billion. The city was asked to contribute $390 million.
There was discussion inside and outside of chambers as to whether the provincial and federal governments would still contribute money to Calgary’s sport infrastructure needs, now that a Winter Olympics is off the table.
“Do our government partners agree with the desperate need to work on these facilities, most of which they built, and rejuvenate them? I think they do,” Nenshi said.
“But I think we’ve got to figure out a plan that makes sense for them and for us, understanding that we have no choice but to do this stuff.”
Calgary’s vintage sports facilities are not going to get special budgetary treatment, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.
“The process by which we suggested we would commit the money that we did for the Olympics was around the Olympics,” Notley said in Edmonton.
“The prioritization of additional funding requests from the city of Calgary for a range of projects will go through the normal process.”
Concordia economics professor Moshe Lander said Calgarians weren’t buying what he believes was a flawed economic argument for hosting another Winter Games when they voted ‘no’ in the plebiscite.
But renewing and sustaining Calgary’s facilities from the ’88 Games shouldn’t be an Olympics-or-bust proposition, he added.
“The city should still be able to make those arguments to the federal and provincial governments for whatever infrastructure projects they want and say ‘these are still good projects. We just don’t have the Olympics as the impetus to make it happen right now,’” Mosher explained.
“That allows them to prioritize a little better rather than try and jumble everything up. They can now figure out what is the most pressing need and make that argument directly to the province and feds.”