OPINION: The Olympics debate should challenge our version of Calgary’s best self

"The dialogue is anything but healthy and far from anything that could be described as a conversation."

By Kourtney Branagan – Special to LiveWire Calgary

My heart is broken for Calgary.

As voters we’ve got a due diligence to respond carefully, not react impulsively, to the implications of either hosting or not hosting Calgary 2026. Fundamentally I believe those are both equal parts of the decision – not only what happens if we do, but what happens if we don’t.

From the beginning my gut has screamed YES to the Olympics. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of a seven-year-old girl from ’88 who has fond (though vague) memories of medal ceremonies at Olympic Plaza, or the TV spot in which Robyn Perry is encouraged to practice running up and down her stairs with a hammer (was this a thing or have I made it up?), or how I love to show my girls my Olympic coin.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve benefitted from the legacy of ’88 – in fact I can’t think of a single facility I haven’t used, the oval, Winsport, Nakiska, Olympic plaza – but I’m acutely aware that this is a position of privilege. I’m fortunate to be able take advantage of these spaces on a regular basis – this isn’t the case for many Calgarians. I need to set aside my positive experiences to truly understand the implications on one million plus people who are affected by this decision.

When I think of how the bid has rolled out I see challenges, often described as ‘secrecy’. I don’t buy this story line. What I bore witness to was not knowing or seeking answers – in part due to lack of resources to fully explore the bid, in part due to a deep uncertainty in our economic situation, and in part a willful ignorance by many to give the file the attention it likely deserved much earlier on.

How the conversation carried forward and was framed was no doubt without clear communication and in the beginning, a lot of intention. It’s pretty challenging to pitch a high-stakes, high investment opportunity in the middle of a recession.

What I saw was that as the economy stabilized and grew so did the exploration. Then a fire got lit and the deadlines loomed, and Calgary found themselves in a now-or-never situation. Maybe I’ve got this wrong, but when I actively look back it hasn’t been an easy or clear, but there has always been enough to encourage, promote, and explore the opportunity. Yes, even now with the uncertainty of funding and an ask to kill the bid.

I’m not an economist, and the thought of trying to unpack a three-billion-dollar budget is beyond the scope of what I can numerically and sensibly calculate.  To be honest, I don’t think most people can. I’m trying to be real here; I understand budgets and have worked in them with my business, my community association, and with other companies where I’ve worked. I have done purchasing and sales forecasting.

I think a great number of people think they can figure out three billion dollars based on experiences similar to mine. I can understand on a high level the costs of facilities, security, and infrastructure, but I can’t fathom the price of accessible bathrooms as a result of these decisions or the cost of return on investment in the years to come. I want to be clear, there are smart people in Calgary but when someone close to me said ‘I don’t think we [Calgary] can afford it’, I asked when the last time was that this person worked in such astronomical numbers on a regular basis or had any concrete understanding of the city, provincial, or federal budgets.

As we’ve now established I’m neither economist nor historian/record keeper. That leaves me as an advocate for community, and for Calgary. And guess what: So is every single person on either side of this decision.

The Olympics debate should challenge our version of Calgary’s best self – affordable housing, accessibility and barrier free buildings, sidewalks, and transit, a sense of community and civic pride, economic prosperity, international recognition as a vibrant and thriving tourist destination. Yet here we are screaming at each other via Twitter, Facebook, through the media, at open houses and public talks; we are hostile and defensive. The dialogue is anything but healthy and far from anything that could be described as a conversation.

Going back to Calgary’s best self. I wonder perhaps if these objectives weren’t viewed as happenstance or a by-product but rather as part of the catalyst for the Olympics, reframed in such a way that made their outcomes equally important to the driving factor for hosting as much as a potentially fun party (which I don’t think has ever been the #1 priority).

Imagine if the conversation had started as a Notice of Motion along the lines of…

Where as, to promote accessibility and barrier free access in our city, and

Where as, to prioritize affordable housing, and

Where as, in a need to stimulate economic activity, and

Where as, to encourage tourism, and

Where as, to reinvest in our city as a winter sports destination for amateur and professional athletes

Etc…

Be it resolved: The City of Calgary has identified that hosting the Olympics in 2026 presents an opportunity to secure provincial and federal funding as part of a larger objective to host international competitions, and the City of Calgary can leverage this funding to meet the above objectives and more as priorities for our city.

Ok, to be fair, I’ve never written a notice of motion in my life but imagine for one short second this was the catalyst. Let’s be clear, we live in a time where the economies of cities, provinces, and countries internally compete for revenue and can have vastly different spending objectives. It’s no secret that leveraging is a means to an end and that political will can rule.

My truth is that I am disappointed in our elected officials and city administration, especially at the civic level. I am not willing to pass blame, point fingers, or seek out fault for the transpiring of events. There have though, on multiple occasions been room for humble pie. Pride, arrogance, and fear have paralyzed many, those stuck on a side, those unwilling to take a side.

At some point, someone has to step up and apologize (not by pointing fingers, either) – to admit it hasn’t been easy, there have been missteps, that it has been far from collaborative work among admin and various levels of government.  The ensuing hostile discussions with the government are a shining example of what leadership should look like in our city when undertaking a massive decision. I cannot think of a single step more vital to repairing the hurt in our city.

So, here we are. We’ve maybe (depending on the outcome of today’s Olympic meeting) got less than two weeks to set aside our biases, listen in an effort to understand, and consider both sides of the debate. I mean this.

I’ve listened to athletes who have made their home in this city and thrived. I’ve listened to seniors on fixed incomes who are truly afraid of tax increases. I’ve read pleas from business owners, I’ve spoken to my in-laws.

Fear.

Whether we do or don’t, I see and hear the scared voices. Scared to take the risk, scared not to take the risk.

Love.

Let’s lean into each other and hear at the heart of this are thousands of people who deeply love our city and its future. Let’s lean into the scared, the hurt, the worry, and all the people that need a voice at this table. Let’s lean in to listen, not to be heard. Let’s lean into compromise, forgiveness, and compassion.

Saying no to the bid process doesn’t mean saying no to the Olympics. Saying no to the Olympics doesn’t mean saying no to a brighter future.

 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with a group on either side of the debate. I have not given my life’s attention to every single conversation or opinion about the Olympics. I have watched the occasional city council meeting, heard from BidCo, and done my best to hear out those for and opposed to hosting the Olympics.

 

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