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Calgary's Olympic bid is dead, but don't completely rule out a zombie moment

Calgary Olympic Park. Photo: David Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

Moments after 10 p.m. last night, the few Albertans nervously paying attention outside Calgary received word voters in Cowtown had clearly said no to the idea of a re-do in 2026 of the city's fabled 1988 Winter Olympics.

I use the term fabled advisedly, as I suspect the vaunted success of the '88 Olympics was mainly a fable spun by some of my former colleagues at the Calgary Herald. It certainly was an industry inside the Herald's giant bunker on Deerfoot Trail long after memories of the actual event had faded.

The massive Herald building -- probably the last newspaper plant on the planet with a state-of-the-art pneumatic tube system when it was built in 1980 -- is now, like the Olympic dream, open for bids from outsiders.

Still, both the Herald and the Olympic bid can for the moment can be counted among the undead -- not really living, but still rattling chains and making occasional thumping noises. At least until Monday, when Calgary City Council is expected to vote to put the expensive plant out of its misery.

Speaking as an old City Hall reporter from that city, though, I say you can't entirely rule out a zombie bid for the Games, at least until councillors have formally driven a legislative stake through the heart of the idea.

But even if someone tries for a zombie bid, it's unlikely now to do much more than prolong the misery.

Thirty years after the first time, $700 million in provincial funding for the proposed multi-billion-dollar do-over hinged on a successful plebiscite in favour of the games.

So when a yes vote failed to materialize last night after a discombobulated effort by the pro-bid forces -- who appeared to have lots of money but no idea of how to run a winning campaign -- you could almost hear the province-wide sighs of relief.

There were 171,750 no votes to 132,832 in favour, or 56.4 per cent to 43.6 per cent. So it would be pretty hard to argue that's a statistical tie -- although someone's sure to try.

Since Premier Rachel Notley insisted on a yes vote before the province forked over its promised contribution, that really should be the end of it. But, like I said, never underestimate the influence of a bunch of well-heeled developers screaming for government dough.

As far as could be seen from up here in Alberta's capital, local opposition in Calgary to the expense, already estimated at more than $5 billion and likely to have gone much higher than that, was spread pretty evenly across all political ideologies and parties.

The idea might have seemed like a good idea when the bid was cooked up in 2016, but it had certainly lost its appeal by Tuesday night.

Lefties were largely horrified at the notion of limited tax revenues going to elite fripperies when basics like health care and public transportation are always under threat in this province. Grassroots conservatives were equally appalled at the potential tax impact.

For this reason, I'm pretty sure Premier Notley's NDP government was privately relieved not to have to wear political egg on its face for the costs of this project. So were significant parts of her opposition led by the United Conservative Party's Jason Kenney. Nevertheless, the UCP seemed to view the campaign as a dress rehearsal for the 2019 general election, as well as a good way to undermine Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is definitely not on Kenney's holiday card list.

No sooner was the vote announced last night than Culture and Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda emailed a statement saying the province would respect the decision. (Whew!) This morning he made it more formal, saying the province respects the vote results and the money is off the table.

Count on it the feeling is much the same in Ottawa -- where it is well understood by the current government that this is a corner of Canada where spending big bucks on anything seldom returns a dividend in votes.

That may account for why the Trudeau Liberals tarried so long making Ottawa's level of support public, and when it did finally cough up a number of $1.4 billion in late October, made it dependent on the province and city ponying up more.

Provincial Finance Minister Joe Ceci, clearly annoyed when he was called out of the NDP's pre-election convention, ripped the feds for leaking the details to media, and grumpily added, "If they put the goalposts back, we are happy to keep talking, but we're not going to engage in any kind of bad faith tactics."

Well, no need to worry about that now.

Even Calgary City Council seemed to have soured on the idea. It voted eight to six to kill the bid just before Halloween, and the torture only continued because that didn't meet the 10-vote threshold required to overturn a previous approval.

One interesting question arising is whether the vote outcome signals the direction the political winds are blowing in Calgary for next spring's expected provincial election.

Despite confident suggestions by the usual suspects, this is not absolutely clear.

Within moments of the results last night, opposition spinmeisters were arguing the vote meant Calgary voters were in a sour mood, ready to turn on the NDP.

Voters there may well choose the opposition next year, but the Olympic bid is unlikely to have much to do with it. And if the wind shifts, the UCP is as likely to attack the government for not supporting the bid enough as for supporting it too much.

In other words, a plebiscite on a plan clearly strongly opposed by many on both sides of Alberta's political divide is probably not a reliable barometer of voter intentions in the election next spring.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

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