Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Democracy vs. Olympics: Calgary Votes No

Another Olympic hosting effort has come to an end as it became clear that local citizens were opposed. CBC News reports 'The people have spoken': Calgary mayor confirms 2026 Olympic dream is dead after vote. Calgary residents voted on the question of whether the city should proceed with its attempt to host the Olympics. It was a decisive vote, with 56 percent of voters opposed.

The troubling thing about the Calgary bid to host the Olympics is how far the process went in spite of never attaining any meaningful legislative approvals and never having a significant level of local support. It seems as soon as a committee was assigned to study the possibility of the city hosting the Olympics, that process took on a life of its own, with no one able to put the brakes on when that was needed.

It was not the voters so much as a budget shortfall of several billion dollars that killed the Calgary Olympics. There is no doubt that the funding shortage, and the scenario of the city residents paying it off over the next forty years, helped persuade some voters to turn out and vote no. Had the Olympics hosting budget balanced, the plan might have gone ahead in spite of local opposition. Conversely, even if voters had voted yes, the hosting proposal could still have fallen apart because of a lack of funding.

What this saga suggests is that there is a fundamental conflict between the Olympics and democracy. Realistically, a city probably cannot host the Olympics or an international sporting event of similar scale unless it is done without letting the people have a voice in the process. When you look at the ethical implications of city taxpayers backstopping the finances for what is, in financial terms, a U.S. television show, that is reason enough for principled voters anywhere to vote no, assuming they are asked.

If the Calgary Olympics story gives you a sense of déjà vu, that may be because it so accurately duplicates the recent story in Boston. There, the budget shortfall was similar in scale, and it was the tireless efforts of community organizers focusing public opposition that brought that project to a stop. But as in Calgary, it was a planning effort that took place behind closed doors with no public support and very limited governmental approval. The thought in Boston was that a major event that would permanently scar the landscape of the city could be shoved down the public’s throat. It is a way of thinking so far removed from democracy that it is no wonder it ran into trouble.

The Olympics may be able to carry on a little longer by holding events in places that are more authoritarian, but eventually, the clash between Olympics and the public interest has to become an embarrassment, not just to the Olympics, but also to its supporters and sponsors. The long-term decline in the U.S. TV sports audience will undercut the prospects for the Olympics ever becoming self-funding. If the Olympics must be a money-losing operation, it really should be financed properly, by charitable donations, rather than by bait-and-switch and hot-potato tactics to cobble together public funding. The two-year cycle of searching for a city where people are gullible enough to agree to host is hardly a reputable way to run such an enterprise.