Edmonton announces bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games

On Monday, the City of Edmonton announced it will bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. Mayor Iveson had this to say about the news:

“Our city’s successful history as a great event host city started with the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Hosting the games in 2022 will demonstrate to the world how much Edmonton has evolved and reflect the Commonwealth Games Federation’s confidence in our city.”

As recently as a week ago, the Commonwealth Games Federation was concerned about a lack of interest in hosting future Games, potentially due to in-fighting and cost. No city had yet stepped forward, and cities that had previously expressed interest such as Singapore, Birmingham, and even London, all cancelled their plans. Then, at the last minute, Edmonton and Durban, South Africa, stepped forward.

Queen Elizabeth II 1978
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh attend the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in 1978

When Edmonton hosted the Games in 1978, they were the biggest to date. Forty-six countries participated, sending 1,474 athletes to compete in 128 events across 10 sports. When the Games take place later this year in Glasgow, more than 70 countries are expected to participate, with more than 4,300 athletes competing in nearly 300 events across 17 sports.

Where did this come from?

The announcement seemed to come out of nowhere, but the possibility of Edmonton hosting the Games actually came up in February 2012, shortly after Commonwealth Games Canada decided to pursue another bid. Here’s what Mayor Mandel said at the time:

“I think 1978 (the last Edmonton Games) was a watershed moment for the city, and 2022, almost 45 years later, it would be a nice re-coming out party.”

“It’s a chance to showcase Edmonton. We have great facilities in the city, so I don’t think there would be a huge capital investment with these games other than some expansion. We would obviously have to do some upgrades.”

Big cities bid on major events to diversify their economies, attract tourists, build their reputations, and engage their citizens. Though many cling to a small-town mentality, Edmonton is a big city. Big cities bid on big events.

The 1978 Commonwealth Games were widely viewed as a coming out party for Edmonton, introducing us to the world stage. The City’s 2004 Annual Report reiterated this view:

“The Commonwealth Games [brought] unprecedented attention Edmonton, marking it as a city of international prestige and importance.”

It’s not like Edmonton has been standing still since 1978 either. We followed the Commonwealth Games up with the 1983 Universiade Games. We have hosted World Cup qualifying matches, World Figure Skating Championships, the 2005 World Masters Games, and much more. Perhaps biggest of all, we hosted the 2001 World Championships in Athletics.

The next few years will be especially busy. This year Edmonton is hosting seven games during the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Canada, and next year we’re hosting eleven games during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada. Off the pitch, Edmonton is hosting the 2015 and 2016 Canadian Track and Field Championships, the latter of which will serve as the Canadian Olympic Track and Field Trials for athletes looking to compete in the Summer Olympics in Brazil. It’s going to be an exciting few years for sports in our city!

Would the federal government support the bid?

Edmonton’s bid to host EXPO 2017 was brought to a halt in 2010 after the Government of Canada withdrew its support, citing the unknown future costs of security. Mayor Mandel felt the real reason was a lack of support for our city, saying that “when it comes to Edmonton’s growth and ambition, our federal government simply isn’t interested.” He singled out MP Rona Ambrose for failing to build the necessary support in Ottawa for Edmonton’s bid.

Edmonton EXPO 2017 Launch

Do we need federal support for this bid? Financially, it seems unlikely a successful event could be staged without support from the Government of Canada, despite City Manager Simon Farbrother’s optimism that the City and Province could support it themselves. The reality is that hosting the Games is a $1 billion proposition, based on recent costs. Security concerns would also likely be a federal issue.

Would the federal government support this bid? Sport Canada guidelines outline that the federal government can only support two Canadian bids for major games in any decade. It is widely expected that Quebec City will bid to host the Winter Olympics, so Edmonton would be counting on being the second major event host.

Halifax was hoping to bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but they were forced to withdraw their bid over concerns with the budget. It was the first time Canada had withdrawn a bid for a Commonwealth Games event. Edmonton’s bid would need to be rock solid.

What does this mean for LRT?

One of the drivers behind Edmonton’s failed bid to host EXPO 2017 was infrastructure money expansion for LRT. Big events require big money, and it was hoped that part of staging a successful event would mean expanding the transit network. Many Edmontonians were quick to make the connection to LRT after Monday’s announcement too.

It’s true that Edmonton’s LRT first opened in 1978, just months before the Commonwealth Games. But that project is not what took the LRT from conception to reality, nor is it what funded the construction. From Ride of the Century:

“In truth, the visionary planning that laid the foundation for the LRT dated back to the decommissioning of the streetcars in 1951, but it took until the early 1960s for the rapid transit dream to take coherent shape in D.L. MacDonald’s Report on the Present Operating Conditions of the Edmonton Transit System With a View to Determining a Policy for The Future Operation of the System in 1961.”

When the LRT opened on April 22, 1978, at a cost of $64.9 million, it was 7.25 km long with five stations.

LRT

Edmonton hosted the 1978 Commonwealth Games from August 3 to 12. Edmonton Transit had been planning transportation for the Games for two years, even assembling a fleet of 724 buses from Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer rolling stock to help meet demand. Their planning paid off.

“Edmonton Transit conveyed almost two million spectators to events over the nine days of the Games, and on August 8, the LRT system set a ridership record of over 69,000 people.”

“The Games were a shining moment for the city, and Edmonton Transit had played its part well passing the gargantuan test with flying colours.”

Just as we needed to continue building LRT with or without EXPO 2017, we need to move forward with LRT expansion whether we host the Games or not. I’d hate to see us tie LRT expansion money to the bid. LRT is our top infrastructure priority, and this event should have no bearing on that.

What does this mean for other infrastructure?

Events like the Commonwealth Games typically leave a physical legacy of facilities in the cities that host them. New sports and recreation facilities built for the Games could serve Edmontonians for years to come.

It is expected that Commonwealth Stadium would once again serve as the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies. It has received numerous upgrades in recent years, and could still receive more. Other facilities that were built for the 1978 Games, like Kinsmen, would likely receive upgrades and could be used. Foote Field was recently upgraded, and a new velodrome adjacent to Peter Hemingway pool has already been in the works. Edmonton had bid to host the 2015 World University Games, and had included a list of facilities as part of that bid that never moved forward. Those plans would likely be dusted off if this bid is successful.

Who is the competition?

In 1978, Edmonton’s competition was Leeds in England, a city with a population of about 200,000 more at the time. Our competition for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is Durban, a South African city of nearly 600,000 in a much larger metro area home to more than 3.4 million people. South Africa has never hosted the Games before, so that likely gives them an edge.

Apparently Durban had previously considered a bid for the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics, which suggests to me they are hungry to host another major international event and will be stiff competition. Durban hosted matches in the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup and was of course one of the host cities for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Canada has hosted the Games four times: 1930 in Hamilton, 1954 in Vancouver, 1978 in Edmonton, and 1994 in Victoria. Edinburgh and Auckland are the only cities to have hosted the Games more than once.

Can Edmonton win? City Manager Simon Farbrother is certainly confident:

“We will, yes. We don’t go into these things to come second. Let’s put it that way.”

What’s next?

The cost of bidding had previously been estimated to range from $8 million to $10 million. Edmonton and Durban will work to finalize their bids by March 2015. After that, members of the Commonwealth Games Federation will meet a General Assembly in Auckland, New Zealand to choose a winner on September 2, 2015.

An Edmonton delegation will be travelling to Glasgow this year as official observers to learn best practices. The City has apparently talked with Glasgow officials about the bidding process too.

The City of Edmonton has said it will continue discussions with the Province and will be looking to engage other stakeholders throughout the country to win their support. Of course, Edmontonians will also be invited to get involved, so look forward to those opportunities in the near future.