Nov. 6, 2018

Olympics are more than the price tag, University of Calgary experts say

Panellists outline societal risks and opportunities for Calgary in hosting the Winter Games

The Olympics is not just an opportunity for passionate athletes to reach for gold. It is also a golden opportunity for Calgary to regain its sense of community, while reflecting on where it’s falling short and who is being left behind, a panel of University of Calgary experts said at a public forum on the eve of city council’s Olympic vote.

The forum, which was co-hosted by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the School of Public Policy, explored the social costs and benefits associated with the city hosting the 2026 Winter Games. Past Olympiads have served to catalyze infrastructure projects and mobilize people, said Dr. Harry Hiller, PhD, a UCalgary sociologist in the Faculty of Arts who for decades has studied the societal impacts of Olympic games.

  • Above: University of Calgary panellists at the Oct. 30 forum at the Glenbow Theatre, from left: William Ghali, Penny Werthner, Kris Fox, Michael Hart, Harry Hiller, Liza Lorenzetti, and Aleem Bharwani. 

Calgary is a city that needs momentum in its search for a new identity, said Hiller, and the Olympics could help in that search. But the Games also serve a marketing aim for host cities keen on showing their best face to the world, resulting in the marginalized — the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised — being further ostracized when the world comes to town, he added.

Marginalized community members often miss out in the "big party" that comes with large-scale social events, agreed professor Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, in the Faculty of Social Work, at the Oct. 30 event at the Glenbow Museum theatre.

“I'm interested not in the pros and cons of being a host city, but in the social, environmental and economic well-being of those in the host city,” Lorenzetti said, adding that these aspects have to become part of the discourse around legacy, but that “we need to connect the word 'legacy' with equity, or decreased social injustice. If that was going to happen I would be the first volunteer for the Games.”

But Dr. Penny Werthner, the current dean of UCalgary Kinesiology, former Olympian and a vocal booster for Calgary hosting the games, agreed there are societal concerns that come with hosting the Olympics but that this is an opportunity to things differently, “to change the game.”

The forum hoped to dig beyond the price tag of an Olympic bid, and to reframe what had become an extremely polarized debate in Calgary over whether or not governments should spend billions hosting the games.

Talk about the Olympics does gravitate around infrastructure, expenditures and, of course, sports, said UCalgary’s vice-provost, Indigenous engagement, Dr. Michael Hart.

“It's about economics, social interactions, cultural pieces,” said Hart.

“It includes dynamics of nations branding,” Hart added. “How do we want to be perceived? What about the relationships, particularly with Indigenous Peoples? We are more than just objects that will receive the benefits of an event like the Olympics. We are people.”

Hiller agreed, saying that from a societal perspective, and to the average person in a host city, the Olympics are an omnibus project encompassing human rights, environmentalism, doping, marginalized communities, and immense pressure on leaders at the local level.

Panellists continually cited Calgary’s ’88 Games as an example of how the Games, if driven by vision and built on an inspired bid, can galvanize a community and catapult the living city into its next phase of development.

Those Games were held in the wake of the divisive and unpopular National Energy Plan, historically high borrowing costs, and a recession. The Olympics, said panel members, were at least partly responsible for Calgary’s eventual navigation out of the financial storm, and, perhaps, for Calgary’s eventual rise as a Canadian economic powerhouse.

But one marked difference between the ’88 Games and today is that support for those Games, before, during and after, remained steady at 85 per cent, said Hiller. Those numbers are now significantly lower — around 53 per cent, according to polls — as is the public standing of the International Olympic Committee, he added.

But hosting the Games may be what the city needs to kick-start economic growth, said Prof. Kris Fox from the Faculty of Environmental Design. Dr. PG Forest, director of the School of Public Policy and who co-moderated the panel, added that it’s short-sighted to think of the bid only from context of where Calgary is now, rather than from where we want it to be in the future.

"The panel of UCalgary experts that we convened touched on so many social dimensions that Calgarians should consider as they go to vote on Nov. 13th,” said Dr. William Ghali, MD, the scientific director of the O’Brien Institute and member of the Libin Institute who co-moderated the panel. The discussion among the panellists was absolutely fascinating, on so many levels — precisely the type of discourse that the O'Brien Institute and School of Public Policy wanted to stimulate."

Calgarians go to the polls on Nov. 13 to vote on whether or not the city should host the 2026 Games. An advanced poll will be held on the UCalgary campus Nov. 7.