OPINION: Just Vapourware: BidCo’s Calgary Olympics promises raise questions

When an organization chooses to skim over details instead of offering concrete data, it’s because the data available doesn't support its desired narrative.

Calgary writer Bridget Brown says a lack of specifics on the Calgary Olympic plan pushes her to the no side of the Nov. 13 vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Vapourware. That’s the word that comes to mind when I read the 83-page draft hosting plan for the proposed Calgary 2026 Winter Games. Vapourware is a term that originated in Silicon Valley and has come to mean the promise of something that’s never going to exist.

Here we are on the eve of the plebiscite, and the draft hosting plan prompts all kinds of questions, but we still don’t have all that many answers from organizers.

The document put together by the Calgary2026 Bid Corporation lists five shared objectives that sound good. Really good. So good no modern city would ever disagree with these objectives. Objectives like “inclusion” and “values-based sport.”

What it doesn’t offer is much evidence to prove the objectives are possible. BidCo describes the outcomes it wants but expends few details on the actions it will take to achieve them.

A draft proposal need not include every operational detail, of course. But those of us who run a business know a real proposal is expected include much more than what a project will produce, and how much it will cost. The people paying the bill also want to see legwork to demonstrate the plan is real-world feasible. The cost isn’t the most important conversation. The real question is whether the project’s promises are even realistic.

BidCo chair Scott Hutcheson called unanswered questions a “convenient excuse” to cancel the bid. To me, the lack of details on execution is more than an excuse, it’s quite simply a nonstarter.

Here are some of my questions:

Where are we on the Flames arena?

BidCo’s draft concept plan says we’re going to reno good old McMahon Stadium and the Saddledome. In a paragraph so brief you could easily miss it, the document also states that should Calgary have built a big, new fancy sports and concert venue sometime between now and 2026, using that venue is not part of the Olympic plan.

Wait, what? Let’s assume that a renovated Saddledome could never meet the needs of the Flames nor Taylor Swift. Does that mean we could be looking at funding the Olympics, and also still be expected by the Flames to chip in for a sports and concert venue in the next couple of years?

City council, to its credit, asked what an event of this magnitude would do to other mega projects on the city’s wish list. The city’s CFO replied that there simply isn’t enough money for everything we want to do. I feel like “well, duh” is the only warranted response to that.

The arena question is far from settled. It matters to a lot of people. We need to know how paying for our share of the Olympics would affect paying for our share of a sports and concert complex, before we vote in a plebiscite.

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Is the Bid Committee going to make sure Banff and Lake Louise don’t get trashed?

If people come to Canada for the Olympics, they will want to stay and see the best of what we have to offer. This undoubtedly includes our pristine mountain parks.

Environmental groups are worried about the effect of this influx of visitors on those parks. If one of the objectives listed in the draft plan is environmental sustainability, why is there no mention of ensuring our guests take only pictures and leave only footprints?

Maybe there’s a way to make sure our parks can remain protected, but I need to know what the plan is before I can throw my support behind a bid.

Do people even want Olympic housing?

There is a 4,000-person waiting list for affordable housing in Calgary. However, if we want Olympic housing to successfully transition to affordable housing, we need to engage experts in the needs of Calgary’s homeless and under-housed in the building process.

We should be building the Olympic housing based on their long-term needs, rather than trying to shoehorn people into housing stock that isn’t built to solve their specific problems.

Is that already the plan? Maybe. We don’t know. Affordable housing is probably the most important promise this plan makes. Can we know this really is a good deal for us without more information?

Zero-waste Olympics? Zero?

Zero-waste events or “zee-wees” are extremely trendy. Possibly because it’s so much fun to say “zee-wee.” It’s nearly impossible to hold a zee-wee wedding, let alone an international sporting event.

One of the few deep dives into BidCo’s plan intended for a broad audience is the excellent analysis by the Canada West Foundation. The authors of the socio-economic study carefully examine BidCo’s plans and claims.

CWF comes out in support of the games, in part because its analysis seems to put higher importance on outcomes like volunteer opportunities (is there a shortage of those in Calgary?) and “nation-building.” They mention but seem to give little importance to environmental risks to our parks, and something they call “greenwashing.”

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Greenwashing is when you make the games sound more sustainable than they will be. In London in 2012, they were also supposed to have a zero-waste games and didn’t even come close. Even if you personally don’t care about zee-wees, the claim should give you pause. If this part of the plan might be unachievable, what other parts of the plan might be just window dressing?

Which brings me back to vapourware, the larger reason I have to vote no. BidCo had ample opportunity to draft its plan, yet opted to keep it broad rather than produce a detailed, outcome-based, tactical plan.

Some of these questions would have been fairly straightforward to answer. In my experience, when an organization chooses to skim over details instead of offering concrete data, it’s because the data available doesn’t support its desired narrative.

Before voting yes for the 2026 Winter Games, I think we need to find out what priorities this event will displace, find out if these games could actually damage our community, and find out if the data shows that they would actually go as proposed, not just for the price promised. Can we do all this by Tuesday? No. So I have to vote no.

Bridget Brown is a Calgary-based freelance writer and marketing consultant. Prior to that, she spent 15 years as a reporter, producer and assignment editor in TV newsrooms across Canada. Follow her on Twitter @Bridget_Brown_

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