To see exactly how the Olympic Games can become a millstone around a city’s neck, it is worth revisiting Montreal in 1976. The sporting action itself was memorable, even iconic; it was the year of 14-year-old gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10, of America’s legendary boxing cabal starring Sugar Ray Leonard, and of the Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto who competed with a broken kneecap to beat Russia to team gold.
But in hindsight, the rains which put out the Olympic flame on the third day (it had to be relit by a stadium worker’s cigarette lighter) were a symbol of things to come. In 1970, the moustachioed Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau had confidently declared: “The Olympics can no more run a deficit than a man can have a baby.” Several years and a billion dollars of debt later, a Montreal Gazette cartoon depicted a visibly pregnant Drapeau telephoning an abortion clinic.
Montreal’s spiralling costs were partly a result of its own unique set of problems – not least terrible corruption which Drapeau failed to control – but it also marked the start an era of excess and overpromise. The Olympic bidding process began to involve more extravagant submissions each time, proposing bigger and better events and longer lasting legacies. It has reached the point where hosting is almost the preserve of the mega-city; professor of economics Andrew Zimbalist argues for Los Angeles to become the permanent home of the summer Games to prevent cities like Rio splurging beyond its means on a brand new golf course most of its citizens will find no use for.
And so perhaps it was no great surprise when the people of Calgary voted against hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics in a referendum this week. The projected cost of more than CAD$5bn (£3bn) was not particularly enticing for Calgarians wary of Olympic budgets’ unique ability to grow exponentially. They know all too well the story of Montreal and its taxpayers' burden, and so they became the 11th successive city to vote ‘no’ in a referendum on whether or not to host an Olympic Games.
It is a worrying trend for the IOC: not so long ago there were 11 cities bidding to host the 2004 Olympics, which was eventually won by Athens; only two bid to host the 2022 edition, and only two are now left in the running for 2026 – Milan and Stockholm – after Sion, Graz and Sapporo all dropped out. The Winter Olympics are particularly niche: not many major cities are in close proximity to a mountain range with reliable snowfall, and even fewer have an Olympic-grade bobsleigh track to hand. The highly specialised facilities required to host a Winter Games are expensive to build and awkward to make sustainable.
In Calgary’s case, the irony is that it has already hosted arguably the most successful Winter Olympics in history. In 1988 the city reinvigorated the less popular version of the Games at a time when the IOC had been considering permanently folding its winter show. The event was even made profitable and Calgary’s moment in the low sun had lasting effects: the city re-used those facilities to host more than 200 national and international sporting events in the following 20 years.
So why would the people say no now? Primarily this is about money, about the exorbitant costs involved in building a world-class athletes’ village, media centre and upgraded facilities in order to meet the wild expectations of a modern Olympics. But it is also about people on the ground – and some of this will sound eerily familiar – taking back control. In Calgary this week, a local councillor who had campaigned for ‘no’, Sean Chu, said of their victory: “I think that people had enough of the establishment, telling us what to do, what to think. They tell you to spend millions, billions. [They say] it’s good for you.”
And while the ‘no’ camp celebrated, the beaten ‘yes’ advocates carried on beating their drum, even though they’d lost. “This all began with great promise,” said the defeated bid’s chief executive, Mary Moran. “A chance to bring the Olympics and Paralympics home to Calgary and Canada, a chance to re-establish our city on the world stage, to put us back on the map. It all made sense, and it still makes sense.”
For most locals it was a risk not worth taking. People have become wise to the fallacy of ‘legacy’. The western democratic world, where city-wide votes have taken place, has been exposed to the stories of empty concrete vessels in Athens, Beijing arenas left to rot, the Manaus football stadium now used as a bus shelter. There is a healthy scepticism of what sports policy expert Professor Jonathan Grix describes as the “coalition of beneficiaries” – the group of business executives and politicians and local media who promote the bid. There is now an acute awareness that investment can become debt, that a host’s reputation is not always enhanced, that a legacy is hard to fulfil. The warm Olympic glow emanating from those rings has dimmed a little.
Professor Grix co-wrote a paper exploring the theory that, particularly for emerging nations, it is better to bid and lose than to actually win and have to host the thing. Profiles can still be raised, a community spirit fostered, associated infrastructure projects can gain national-level support, to the point where it is of strategic benefit to spend the $250k submission fee for a city like Baku, which has bid for several Olympics in recent times.
“Paradoxically it is better for citizens if they don’t win,” Grix tells The Independent. “Hosting the Olympics could be potentially disastrous for an emerging city like Baku.” Of the Olympic bid process in general, he adds: “It is one area where there has been absolutely no policy learning.”
Policy makers may not have learned, but the people voting in referenda across the world have. In 2006, 30 years on from the 1976 Games in Montreal, when the perfect 10’s Comaneci was now 44 years old with a family and a published memoir, the city finally paid off its Olympic debt. The astonishingly expensive Montreal Olympic Stadium, which was initially nicknamed “The O” for its donut-shaped retractable roof and soon became known around town as “The Owe”, still stands today, just outside the city centre, looming over the Montreal Botanical Gardens like a corroding spaceship. It seems entirely fitting that the roof never closed properly, and still doesn’t.
It stands as one of the great monuments to both the Olympic Games’ lasting memories and lasting travesties, a shrine to iconic sport, fiscal irresponsibility and the potentially devastating ramifications of investing in a two-week blow out. Some say Montreal never fully flourished while under the shadow of its Olympic debt, and the risk of that curse is one the people of Calgary and the rest of the world are increasingly reluctant to bear.