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Scott Stinson: Even with plan for off-the-rack Olympics, Calgary’s billions may not be worth month of good times

The Pyeongchang 2018 Organizing Committee issued a statement
last week declaring that “legacy plans are underway” with
respect to three of its most expensive venues.

If it strikes you as a bit surprising that, six months after
the Olympics left town, the organizers were just now
considering what to do with the hockey rink, the skating oval,
and the alpine mountain, you would not be wrong. But the
statement came as a response to recent reports in Korea that
Gangwon province was facing “massive debt” related to the Games
and needs millions of dollars to keep those costly facilities
open.

That part isn’t a surprise at all. The post-Games letdown of
under-used and overly expensive venues is a standard part of
the Olympic experience, right up there with the hosts letting a
drunk athlete who smashes up a gas station or steals a Humvee
off the hook.

It’s something that the organizers of a potential Calgary 2026
bid seem very much determined to avoid. The most notable thing
about the somewhat-more-detailed $5.2-billion plan for a
Calgary Games remains that it would spend next to nothing, in
Olympic infrastructure terms, on new venues: Just $400-million
for a secondary hockey arena and a fieldhouse, and $500-million
to spruce up the big stadiums that were used in the 1988
Olympics. (Also they would use the Whistler ski jump and maybe
curl in Edmonton, and pity the poor Norwegian fan who buys
tickets to both before looking at a map.)

Calgary
2026 Bid Corporation CEO Mary Moran delivers a briefing
discussing the technical elements of its plan for the 2026
Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games prior to the plan being
presented to Calgary City Council, in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday,
Sept. 11, 2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Considering that Pyeongchang spent an estimated $6-billion on
infrastructure alone, there’s an undeniable logic to the
Calgary plan. All that money was spent in Korea despite an
evident lack of interest in that country in downhill skiing,
hockey or long-track speed skating and, lo, it is those
facilities that are waiting for a usage plan. The alpine venue
in Jeongseon was supposed to be reforested (seriously) after
the Games, but provincial and local officials now want to keep
it open as a tourist draw. (It is tall and narrow and in the
middle of nowhere, and seems unlikely to become Asia’s
Kitzbuhel either way.)

The Korean experience follows the much more grim results from
Rio 2016, where most facilities are either shuttered or in
disrepair or both. Organizers there gave up on some of the
planned legacy projects long before the Games even began once
funding problems began to mount. Bold pre-Games legacy plans
lead to post-Games sadness.

The Calgary 2026 proposal for more of an off-the-rack Olympics
wouldn’t just lead to less risk of crumbling, empty buildings,
it would — in theory — be less likely to be subject to the cost
overruns that plague all Olympic plans. If you avoid building
big new things, you could dodge the spiralling costs that lead
to the final bills that tend to come in close to 150 per cent
over what was planned. That is a big “could,” mind you: even a
Calgary 2026 that was only 50 per cent over budget, which would
be heroic restraint by Olympic standards, would still mean
someone needs to find another $2.5-billion.

Mary
Moran speaks during a press conference after being named the new
Calgary 2026 Olympic bid committee CEO in Calgary on July 31,
2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Looking over the Calgary proposal, the biggest item in terms of
a tangible legacy, other than the improvements to existing
buildings like the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium, appears to
be affordable housing. It promises $583-million for temporary
athletes’ housing that would be converted post-Games to
permanent units. The proposal says these investments would help
address housing shortages in Calgary and Canmore. But it would
only address them so much, imagining a 600-unit affordable
housing bump and a 240-unit seniors complex. The proposal
itself says there is a shortage in Calgary of 15,000 affordable
housing units.

If there has been an Olympic bid plan in recent years that is
less ambitious in terms of what it promises to leave behind
when the Games have left, I am not aware of it. This one touts
enhancements and upgrades to existing facilities and some
housing that would put but a dent in the region’s present
shortfall. It is tough to be both prudent and showy at the same
time.

And so, the question that Calgarians will be left to consider,
when the Olympic proposal goes to a vote in November, is a
pretty simple one: Do you want to spend a few billion dollars
on a month or so of good times?

That’s not intended as a question that answers itself. Even
though no one knew what they were going to do with the ski hill
or the hockey arena, Korea seemed damned happy to be an Olympic
host. Late in the Games, I was at dinner with a colleague and
realized that the restaurant was unusually quiet. It turned out
everyone was watching women’s curling on their phones. They
were riveted. The home team won and beers were on the house.
(You’ve never seen so many foreign journalists become Korean
curling fans.) That part of the Olympic experience is not
nothing: it’s a big, communal party and civic pride gets a
horse-steroid injection and if things work out you get to show
the best parts of yourself off to the world. The Olympics are
undoubtedly a few weeks of fun. Whether it is billions of
dollars of fun is a tougher question to answer.

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