Opinion: Vancouver's Olympic dreams could be reignited by Calgary's failure

Nov 14 2018, 2:27 pm

More than 15 years ago, Vancouver residents voted in a plebiscite to proceed with their bid to host the 2010 Winter Games. The result: 64% voted ‘Yes’ in what was one of the highest turnouts in memory at the time for a civic vote.

The same, of course, could not be said in Calgary on Tuesday when its residents decided to swing towards the opposite direction: Over 304,000 people voted, but the decision was 56% ‘Against.’

The bid is now dead. The tactic by proponents of running the bid’s hopes and dreams on any remaining nostalgia from the 1988 Winter Games simply wasn’t enough to push the bid over the line to keep the dream alive.


Renovations to McMahon Stadium would allow the 1960-built facility to be the venue for the Calgary 2026 Winter Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies. (Calgary 2026)

As a consequence, and given the fallout, the idea of re-hosting the Olympics in Calgary will likely be put to bed for a generation.

And without any plan that provides major investment to renew the physical sports legacies built more than three decades ago, many of these Olympic legacies that have defined so much of Calgary’s identity as a winter sports capital — the training grounds that have created many of Canada’s Olympians — will likely soon permanently disappear.

The International Olympic Committee’s 2026 bid process was building up to be Calgary’s Games to lose.

As a past host city, the cost of re-hosting the Olympics was estimated to be lower than recent hosts, given the ability to re-use much of the venues and infrastructure built for 1988. Calgary’s bid plans depicted a relatively bare bones Olympics.

The IOC had also promised to pitch in $1.2 billion to the 2026 Games organizing committee — nearly double the amount that was provided to the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC).

canada olympic park

Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. (Shutterstock)

The Games would likely have provided Calgary, still hampered by the effects of a prolonged recession, with a much-needed morale boost, catalyst for economic activity, and an opportunity to diversify its economy beyond its oil dependency.

But for four other Canadian cities there are some upsides to Calgary’s decision to reject the Games: It has kept a real window of opportunity open for a repeat Winter Games performance by Vancouver and a sliver of a chance for a successful Summer Games bid by Toronto or a joint Winter Games bid by Quebec City and Montreal.

Revisiting Vancouver’s Winter Games legacies

Any chance of winning public opinion over the idea of re-hosting the Olympics within the next two decades entirely depends on the longevity of the housing affordability and supply crisis, or rather the ability of municipal and provincial governments to finally put a lasting damper on the housing market.

The cost of living in Metro Vancouver has left residents across the region with a feeling of indignation to the extent that it greatly contributed to the recent changeovers in government on both the provincial and municipal levels.

It goes without say that unless housing is ‘fixed,’ any push to re-host the Games in Vancouver would meet the same fate as Calgary’s bid.

But the 2010 Games, which are now widely regarded as a financial success that brought lasting positive physical legacies, provided just enough of a boost for BC to weather through the recession in the late-2000s.

VANOC headquarters

Interior design of VANOC’s 2010 Campus at 3585 Graveley Street in East Vancouver, now used as the headquarters of the Vancouver Police Department. The office spanned 180,000 sq. ft. and employed over 2,000 people by 2010. (SSDG Interiors)

At its peak, VANOC had a workforce of 30,000 volunteers and 20,000 employees and contractors, and that does not include the employment generated by the official sponsors, governments, and Olympic-related construction projects over the years.

The only major uncertainty left by the Games, temporarily burdened on City of Vancouver taxpayers, was the Olympic Village development in Southeast False Creek. The redevelopment on City-owned land hit a snag in 2008 when a New York-based hedge fund Fortress Investment Group stopped financing the developer’s construction costs.

The municipal government stepped in and provided about $630 million to complete the project in time for the Games. But this debt was short-lived, as by 2014 the City had paid off its entire $630 million debt through the sale of the remaining residential units at the Olympic Village, and it even made a profit of $70 million that went towards new community amenities and public infrastructure. The Olympic Village has since become one of Vancouver’s most thriving, vibrant neighbourhoods, and a catalyst for the redevelopment of Southeast False Creek.

Vancouver Olympic Village construction

A sea of cranes in Southeast False Creek near downtown Vancouver in December 2007 for the construction of the Vancouver Olympic Village. (Al Harvey / Flickr)

VANOC also broke even on its operating budget of $1.894 billion, which was quite a feat considering the difficult economic conditions arising from the recession late in its planning.

Critics of the Games have often pegged the ‘real cost’ of the Games at $7.7-billion, and that figure is certainly alarming without context.

Most of this accounts for infrastructure that likely would have been built regardless of the Games, but was accelerated to take advantage of the opportunity in enhancing the hosting experience. And these infrastructure investments have proven to be highly-used community assets.

This includes the $2.05-billion Canada Line, which now sees about 150,000 boardings per weekday. The project was prioritized ahead of the SkyTrain extensions to UBC and Coquitlam, although serious discussions on a SkyTrain line to the airport and Richmond first began in the early-1990s.

Then there’s the $600 million that went towards improving the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which was highly prone to fatal accidents. The safety upgrades, widening, and roadway realignments not only cut down the number of collisions but also provided an economic boost to the Sea-to-Sky corridor.

Vancouver Convention Centre green roofs

The green roof at the Vancouver Convention Centre’s West Building. (Vancouver Convention Centre)

Discussions on an expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre also began in the 1990s, with the provincial government considering sites both east and west of Canada Place. Ultimately, the Burrard Landing site immediately west of Canada Place was chosen for the project that would become the $890-million West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre — tripling the space of the existing space within the Expo ’86 Canada Pavilion, now known as Canada Place.

VANOC maintained that the new convention centre was not required for its International Broadcast Centre (IBC), as its final bid plan was to spend about $30-million on a temporary trailer park IBC within the Garden City Lands in Richmond.

Nearly a decade after its completion, the convention centre has become one of the largest generators of tourism in the province, with its ability to host and attract large and high-calibre meetings and conventions. It also provided a much-needed significant outdoor public space for the city to host public events.

The original early design concepts created in the late-1990s of the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion on Burrard Landing. This unimplemented design also envisioned a 2,000-seat performing arts centre building, depicted on the far right. (Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre)

As for the new indoor stadiums and sports facilities built for the Games, they were converted into community and recreational spaces for the region’s growing population.

Vancouver Olympic Centre’s curling rink was reconfigured into a regular ice rink, public library, and gymnasium. Richmond Olympic Oval’s speed skating surface was turned into two ice hockey rinks, running tracks, and courts for basketball, volleyball, and indoor soccer.

UBC Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre provided the university’s aging ice rink facilities with an uplift, while new practice ice rinks built at Trout Lake Park and Killarney provided two neighbourhoods with new recreational facilities.

Before: Richmond Olympic Oval during the 2010 Games

Richmond Olympic Oval

Chiara Simionato of Italy and Bo-Ra Lee of Korea prepare to start at the women’s 500 m long track event at Richmond Olympic Oval during the Vancouver 2010 Games. (zemistor / Flickr)

After: Richmond Olympic Oval in its post-Games mode

Richmond Olympic Oval

Interior of the Richmond Olympic Oval in its post-Games, multi-sport mode, with the speed skating ice surface removed. (Richmond Olympic Oval)

And of course, there was the outpouring of patriotism — the energy in downtown Vancouver was unparalleled to anything the city or country, for that matter, has ever experienced. For those who were in the city in February 2010, they will remember it for a lifetime.

All things considered, Vancouver 2010 was one of the least expensive, best organized Olympics in recent memory given its responsible, relatively conservative spending practices, immense emphasis on creating sustainable post-Games legacies, and the accessibility of experiencing the atmosphere of the Games for people of all incomes.

Any possible future Olympic bid in Vancouver would likely play on the nostalgia from the 2010 Games, aligning with the strategy of Calgary 2026 bid proponents. It would also renew the legacies built for the Games.

But Calgary’s failure to seek public support shows nostalgia alone is not enough: There needs to be a real vision —  ‘new’ legacies, both tangible and intangible, must also be produced.

The scene in the streets of downtown Vancouver after Crosby’s golden goal in the men’s ice hockey final of the 2010 Games. (City of Vancouver)

The infrastructure, resources, and experience to pursue major international sporting events now exists in Vancouver. In 2015, the City of Vancouver partnered with Tourism Vancouver and other regional stakeholders to create Sport Hosting Vancouver — a new agency that coordinates and strategizes the pursuit of the hosting duties of sporting events.

Sport Hosting Vancouver has seen immediate success, and it is an organizational model the City of Toronto is looking to replicate.

It had a major hand in helping bids land Vancouver’s rights to host the HSBC World Rugby Sevens (Vancouver has been an annual host city for the tournament since 2016).

And three major sporting events will be held in the city over the next few weeks: 2018 NCAA Vancouver Showcase, 2018 ISU Grand Prix Of Figure Skating Final, and 2019 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.

Sport Hosting Vancouver also had a major role in Vancouver’s recent participation in the bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which ultimately excluded the city due to a decision by the BC government to pull out of the running.

Vancouver 2010 VANOC

Olympic rings atop Grouse Mountain and in the waters of False Creek were some of the original ‘Look of the Games’ concepts envisioned for Vancouver 2010. (VANOC)

Vancouver 2010 VANOC

Olympic rings atop Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver’s tallest building, and branded decorations were some of the original ‘Look of the Games’ concepts envisioned for Vancouver 2010. (VANOC)

Summer Games dreaming in Toronto

Toronto has made two past bid attempts to host the Summer Olympics. It came in third place in the race for 1996, coming in behind the host city of Atlanta and runner up Athens.

The city made another attempt for 2008, but it ended up being the runner up to Beijing, the clear favourite in the bid race.

There were discussions on a possible bid for 2012, however, Vancouver winning the 2010 Games extinguished that opportunity. But perhaps the third time’s the charm for Toronto? (For what it’s worth, Istanbul has a worst bidding record, with its failed bids for the Summer Games of 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2020.)

Toronto 2008 Olympic bid logo

Toronto 2008 Olympic bid logo. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

Despite being the largest city in the country and the hub for business and culture, Toronto did not host its first major international sporting event until 2015, the Pan American Games.

While the 2015 Games were a lukewarm success, they were a helpful stepping stone for eventually hosting the Olympics.

“We heard how the Toronto 2015 Games achieved broad city and region building aims through the construction and upgrading of much-needed sport infrastructure and the creation of a new mixed-income community in the West Don Lands,” reads the report.

“In the latter case, the community development plans had long been in the works; the Games simply provided a rationale to finally get them done at least a decade earlier than would have occurred on their own. Although community representatives recognize that international event hosting will not be a cure-all for our major city building needs, they expect major events to leave a worthwhile and beneficial legacy.”

Union Pearson Express UP Express

The UP Express station in downtown Toronto. The express train service between the city centre and Toronto Pearson International Airport opened in time for the 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

Looking to the future, in 2016, the City of Toronto released a report — Bringing The World To Toronto — that identified international hosting event opportunities and steps forward for creating the infrastructure and resources to pursue future events.

It addressed the pitfalls of the previous uncoordinated and reactionary processes that contributed to the failure to launch an Expo, Commonwealth Games, or another Olympic bid.

“Because these events arise only periodically (and often unpredictably) there has not been much reason to develop a consistent, methodical approach to evaluation or planning that carries forward from one event to the next,” reads the report.

“As a result, major event planning has often been undertaken with a significant degree of uncertainty, a lack of sufficient early coordination and limited resolve from all partners. It’s not surprising then that, as we’ve seen with some unsuccessful or unrealized bids in the past, they failed to capture full public support (as in the case of the 2008 Olympic bid) or necessary commitment from a government partner (for the 2015 World Expo).”

Nathan Phillips Square Toronto Sign

Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall during the 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

City Council adopted the report’s proactive recommendations in June 2016, which urged the municipal government to adopt a long-term policy for hosting major international events, identifying dedicated financial and City staff resources for bidding and hosting activity, and work collaboratively with the Ontario government’s Ministry of Tourism, Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation, Tourism Toronto, and other relevant regional organizations.

“By putting these modest, reliable resources in place, the City will be better able to take a deliberate and proactive approach to major event hosting activity,” the report continues.

“It is also our view that by signalling this support, the City will be in a position to unlock support from others with a stake in major events – including governmental, civic and corporate partners. If the City lays the groundwork for bidding and promotional activity, this will send a strong signal to other partners that may see the value of international events but are unsure about how to maximize and protect their investment.”

York Lions Stadium Toronto

York Lions Stadium at Toronto’s York University campus. The stadium was built for the athletics events of the 2015 Pan American Games. It seated 12,500 people during the Games, with 3,000 permanent seats and the remaining as temporary seats. (Harvey K / Flickr)

Another recommendation was the need for intergovernmental cooperation and support that provides a predictable model to support events held in Ontario.

This was evident with the Calgary 2026 bid, which was hampered by a lack of intergovernmental cooperation and the inability of various levels of governments to hammer a funding deal well in advance of the plebiscite campaign. The Calgary Bid Committee and other proponents were disorganized and in disarray in the final weeks leading up to the public vote.

“We recognize that before making any commitments, all partners need to do their due diligence and evaluate the merits and value of investment in a hosting opportunity,” the report adds.

“And this work takes some time. So we are not advocating that government partners move too quickly or cut corners. But the current uncertainly around process and timing can endanger even the most thoroughly developed hosting concept.”

It remains to be seen whether this direction towards a new framework in how Toronto pursues events will lead to an Olympic bid.

Toronto 2008

The Toronto 2008 bid envisioned transforming the Port Lands into an Olympic Park with an 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, Aquatic Centre, Hockey Stadium, Archery Centre, Shooting Centre, and venue for rowing, canoe, and kayak. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

While the Pan American Games provided many positive legacies, many of the venues built for the Games cannot be reused for the Summer Games — they are far too small for the Summer Games, even under the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 standards of encouraging minimalism and conservation.

For instance, the new aquatic centre at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, one of the most expensive venue investments for the 2015 Games, is too small for even the IOC’s new scaled down requirements.

As for what a Summer Games in Toronto could look like, it will likely be quite different than what was proposed in the 2008 bid.

Much of the last Olympic bid plan, created about two decades ago, envisioned transforming industrial lands on the downtown waterfront, West Don Lands, Lower Don Lands, and Port Lands into a highly centralized and compact Olympic Waterfront venue plan. However, many of these sites are no longer available due to new and planned major redevelopments.

Toronto Olympic Waterfront Plan

Toronto Olympic Waterfront Plan for the 2008 bid. (Toronto 2008 Bid Book)

Existing venues that were proposed to be used for 2008 would also now likely require significant renovations to be competition-ready for the earliest opportunity to host the Summer Games in 2030.

Nevertheless, if there is ever to be another Summer Games in Canada, Toronto would be the only option — the only Canadian city with the economic capacity and infrastructure to host the event and comfortably absorb all the requirements and demands that come along with the duties. To a lesser extent than Vancouver, the city would also need to properly address and resolve its growing housing affordability issues in order to win over public opinion on pursuing the Olympics.

To date, Toronto’s closest encounter with the Olympics is its short-lived Olympic Spirit attraction within a purpose-built building next to Dundas Square, now home to the studios for CityTV and Omni TV. But it would be best practice to build any $32-million Olympic museum in Toronto after the city has established a historic connection to the Olympic Movement.

CN Tower fireworks

Fireworks are launched off the CN Tower as part of the Closing Ceremony for the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. (Shutterstock)

Quebec City and Montreal co-hosting the Winter Games

Quebec City lost against Salt Lake City for the race to host the 2002 Winter Games, and in 1998 the Canadian Olympic Committee chose Vancouver over Quebec City and Calgary as Canada’s candidate city for the 2010 Games.

There were renewed discussions by Quebec City leaders a few months after the 2010 Games to submit another bid for the Winter Games, but nothing came out of it.

Then in 2016, Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume seriously contemplated an idea to submit a Quebec City Winter Games bid with many of the competition venues located in Calgary and Vancouver. Needless to say, this idea did not go anywhere either after Labeaume travelled to Switzerland to discuss the feasibility with the IOC President.

But Quebec City does pull its own weight to an extent.

Videotron Centre Quebec City

Inside Videotron Centre in Quebec City. (Videotron Centre)

The 1931-built Pavilion de la Jeunesse underwent a major reconstruction in 2007. It has 5,000 seats in its ice hockey configuration and could host curling events.

In 2015, the Videotron Centre — a $370-million, 18,300-seat indoor arena — opened with the intention of luring a new or re-located NHL franchise. It replaced the 15,100-seat Colisée Pepsi, which closed in 2015 and has not been demolished.

Videotron Centre would be ideal as the primary ice hockey venue, while renovations to Colisée Pepsi could turn it into a suitable venue for figure skating and short-track speed skating.

Currently, Quebec City is currently building a new $69-million indoor speed skating oval, dubbed the Centre de Glace, that meets the international competition standards for long track speed skating. This facility is scheduled to open by 2020.

quebec city centre de glace

Artistic rendering of the Centre de Glace speed skating oval in Quebec City. (Government of Quebec)

Québec City Convention Centre’s 300,000-sq-ft of meeting and exhibition space may even be enough to accommodate both the Main Press Centre and International Broadcast Centre.

The 2002 bid envisioned building the Olympic Village at Laval University, with the post-Games legacy of converting the residential units into student dormitories.

Opening, closing, and nightly medal ceremonies would be held in a temporary amphitheatre-like stadium built on the historic Plains of Abraham overlooking the St. Lawrence River. This large space has previously held outdoor concerts with audiences as large as 200,000 people.

Nearby mountain ski facilities are also suitable to host the various skiing and snowboarding competitions of the Games, but a challenge lies with finding a suitable site for the men’s alpine skiing downhill event. This was an obstacle for the 2002 bid, and continues to be an obstacle moving forward.

Le Massif is about 40 metres shorter than the minimum vertical drop requirement required of 800 metres, and a big dip approximately mid-way makes it completely unusable.

Le Massif Quebec City St. Lawrence River

Le Massif ski area near Quebec City with a view of the frozen Saint Lawrence River. (Shutterstock)

Alternatively, Quebec City could carry less of the burden if it were to split its hosting responsibilities with Montreal, with a co-hosting plan similar to Vancouver-Whistler and Beijing-Zhangjiakou.

For instance, Ceremonies could be held at Montreal Olympic Stadium, which is getting a new $200-million retractable roof in time for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and the primary ice hockey venue could be located at the Montreal Canadiens’ Bell Centre.

Montreal also has ample hotel rooms for media and visitors, which is lacking in the Quebec City area.

It is highly unlikely Montreal will ever pursue a Summer Games bid — an event it would have to host on its own — given the enduring notoriety of the Olympic Stadium’s cost overruns.


Inside Montreal Olympic Stadium during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (Canada Soccer)

See also
Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

+ News
+ Venture
+ Opinions
+ Offside
+ Olympics
+ Urbanized