Not to put too much pressure on Canada, especially given the current state of the neighbours, but it may be up to us to save the Olympics. Not the movement itself, of course. There are lots of Canadians like Beckie Scott and Dick Pound and others who are fighting the good fight on existential underpinnings like doping. And thank goodness for them.
But for the moment they appear to have lost that fight. In some ways, the Olympics don’t want to be saved.
When it comes to the 2026 Winter Games, though, Canada may be the only hope. There are only three potential bids, which the International Olympic Committee approved Tuesday: Milan and Cortina D’Ampezzo in Italy (which could be the last Winter Games in central Europe ever, if you think about it), Stockholm in Sweden (plus some sliding in Latvia), and Calgary (plus some events in Whistler, B.C.). Turkey, the autocratic bid, was dropped last week. You know what they say about scapegoat-based autocratic populism these days: they can’t win ’em all.
The IOC, meanwhile, insists there is no Plan B, which is the kind of thing you say when you have great options, right? Salt Lake City is definitely not just sitting there, ready to be an emergency Olympic host and give NBC two straight chances to make the most patriotic possible pile of time zone-friendly money.
But other than a last-ditch Mormon option, or maybe Barcelona, Canada appears to be the safest harbour left. The IOC was effusive, of course. Vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. said in the IOC Session in Buenos Aires, “People might say that we only have three candidates. But let me tell you, we do have three candidates … that are extraordinary.” Of Calgary he said, “Calgary is a very big city, Canada is a very developed country, and they can do that any day of the week. There is no problem there.” Of Italy he said, “No doubt they can do the Games.” Of Sweden he said, “Again, it’s a very attractive concept.”
“Any of the three would be a good, trustworthy partner for us. Legacy, guaranteed everywhere. Legacy, I repeat, guaranteed,” Samaranch said. “Nothing that would come out of ’26 would make us feel ashamed in ’46.”
Very comforting. Toronto has successfully dodged this kind of question, because bids are hard, and getting trickier. The IOC had real trouble in 2022, which went to Beijing because the other option was Kazakhstan, which would have been the modern wagon-and-yak Olympics. Democracies dropped out of winter bidding because people have realized the Olympic Games cost a lot of money and leave you with exotic infrastructure investments whose usefulness expires with the Games. The last three Games — in Sochi, Russia, Rio de Janeiro, and Pyeongchang, South Korea — all left expensive and unwanted leftover behind.
But this time, democracies are back! Well, sort of. After every glowing review of a candidate, Samaranch would sigh and say, “politics.” In Sweden they are still sorting out the recent elections, but to this point there has been almost no government support for the bid. In Italy, it was supposed to be a three-city deal, and then Turin exited, so they are working with a plan that was literally reworked last month.
And Calgary will hold that Nov. 13 plebiscite with no vocal support from the mayor, the premier or the federal government. Still, Canada may be the best bet. Robert Livingstone, the Toronto-based journalist for GamesBids.com, predicted this was how the bidding would come out a year ago, and thinks Calgary has the best chance.
“I think the IOC really wants Europe, if available, with priority on Sweden,” he says. “Calgary wins if it’s the only city left in the race. Which could well happen, if the plebiscite goes ‘yes.’ ”
So will it? The IOC showed a very simple video that extolled the all-too-neat economics of the new Olympics, claiming it will be profitable and clean and will make your children want to exercise. Samaranch said “it’s our job to go out and make people understand that the inspiration, the good things the Olympic Games bring to a community, come with no significant financial risks to that community.”
No significant financial risks! None! It felt like he was selling insurance.
And as the IOC was extolling the new, cheaper, less monolithic New Norm process to keep the cost and negative impact of bidding down, a report from Japan’s board of audit said the Tokyo 2020 bid will cost up to $25 billion (U.S.), up from $7.3 billion (U.S.) in 2013.
The IOC contested this, saying some of the items put under the Olympic umbrella shouldn’t be counted. But as The Associated Press reported, some of the items under dispute included “barrier-free facilities for Paralympic athletes, training programs for volunteers, and advertising and tourism plans.” Also, the audit also said the budget did not include, uh, security costs. Or upgrading the existing buildings that will used during the Games. Or running the doping lab. Well, maybe that’s optional, now.
In Calgary, meanwhile, the security budget is two-thirds that of Vancouver 2010, which seems like the tip of an accounting iceberg. So the people of Calgary will have to decide on the same essential question every non-autocratic nation has to answer: How much do you trust the IOC? Experience would tell you, not much, right? Not much.
But Italy is rickety and Sweden ain’t Eden, and the IOC is sweet-talking promises like never before. Canada might be needed to save the Olympics. Unless the good people of Calgary decide that for all the promises, it’s not worth saving at all.