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Olympic plebiscites tricky, says 2010 leader, as Calgary heads to the polls

Calgary has picked a day and the question.

A Nov. 13 plebiscite will ask Calgarians “are you for or are you against Calgary hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?”

Assuming city council doesn’t pull the plug on a bid before that vote, public opinion could be the ultimate authority on whether a bid book is submitted to the International Olympic Committee in January.

Plebiscites are tricky entities, as Vancouver experienced in 2003 when the same question was asked about hosting the 2010 Winter Games.

John Furlong, who co-led the successful bid and headed the organizing committee, was dead against Vancouver holding one at the time.

“Olympic plebiscites can take on a bit of a negative tone to them and many of them have failed because the opposition becomes inspired,” Furlong told The Canadian Press recently.

Furlong and the late Jack Poole had spent months constructing a bid with a team of 50 people when mayoral candidate Larry Brown made a referendum on the Olympics an election promise.

In his book “Patriot Hearts,” Furlong wrote that a plebiscite just weeks before the IOC decided on a 2010 host could have at worst scuttled a bid and at best sent a message that Vancouver and co-host Whistler, B.C., were not committed to holding a Winter Games.

Furlong held his breath Feb. 22, 2003, when Vancouverites were asked “do you support or do you oppose the City of Vancouver’s participation in hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Winter Games?”

The “Yes” vote prevailed with 64 per cent in favour to 36 per cent against. About 46 per cent of the city’s eligible voters cast their ballot in the plebiscite, which cost about $575,000.

The result wasn’t a landslide, but it was a strong enough mandate to continue, Furlong wrote.

Calgary and nearby Canmore, Alta., hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. Calgary has yet to commit to a 2026 bid, with city council reserving the right to halt the process at any time.

The public and council await financial details and want to know how much the provincial and federal governments would commit to hosting the games.

An initial estimate in 2017 put the cost of hosting at $4.6 billion, with games revenues covering almost half.

The IOC has since committed US$925 million (CDN$1.2 billion) in cash and services to the successful bid city.

The provincial government made its funding of the Calgary 2026 bid corporation conditional on holding a plebiscite.

Faced with the inevitable, Furlong advises Calgary 2026 chief executive officer Mary Moran and the board chaired by Scott Hutcheson to make the plebiscite work for them in educating the public and gaining its trust.

“I would just embrace it and I would set out to try and convince everyone, wherever they live in Alberta, that this could be a great thing, that this could reinvigorate the economy, this could inspire the province and trust people to come around you,” he said.

“What option do you have? To say you don’t trust people, that’s a bit demeaning. Let people have their say and take their voice with you to present your credential to the IOC, would be the way I would put it.”

Voters in the Swiss region of Valais sunk a 2026 bid in June with almost 54 per cent refusing financial support for a bid centred in the town of Sion.

The IOC will choose a 2026 host city in September 2019. But the power dynamic between potential host cities and the IOC has changed since Vancouver and Whistler won the 2010 bid by just three votes July 2, 2003.

Cities are no longer lining up for Olympic Games, so the IOC has been more cap in hand with concessions to reduce the cost of bidding and hosting.

How much a plebiscite result’s weight now carries with the IOC, should Calgary proceed with a bid, is murkier in the new landscape.

But a decisive thumbs up or down from Calgarians provides direction for a city and a council wrestling with the question of whether another Winter Games is good for Calgary.

A 50-50 split? Clear as mud.

— With files from The Associated Press

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press