The road to the Olympics turned into a collision course for several strong personalities
THE MEN WHO MADE IT WORK
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The road to the Olympics turned into a collision course for several strong personalities
Some see it as a macho club, whose doors are open only to cattlemen and oilmen. Others see it as a band of small-town visionaries motivated by a frontier spirit. Whatever they brand it, Olympiques Calgary Olympics (oco) has pulled off a daunting feat—the planning of a 16-day Winter Games that is likely to earn a profit of roughly $32 million. Despite internal wrangling, embarrassing blunders and public criticism, the embattled committee has orchestrated everything from a nightly shoeshine for members of the International Olympic Committee (ioc) to the elaborate television and corporate sponsorship contracts that covered most of the $550-million operating budget. “The people in Calgary were not burdened by their mistakes,” says Peter Ueberroth, president of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. “They will deliver the most excellent Olympic Winter Games that have ever been achieved.”
The organizing committee’s story, like a soap opera, has been one of clashing egos and weekly imbroglios. Three powerful personalities dominate the action, oco’s $150,000a-year chairman and chief executive, Frank King, 51, is a millionaire oilman and chemical engineer, known around town as “Captain Calgary.” The polished, smooth-talking King had the vision to bring the Games to Calgary and to provide a legacy of world-class sports facilities for the city. Practical execution of oco’s game plan has been in the hands of its capable but abrasive president, William Pratt, a former general manager of the Calgary Stampede who sports a white Stetson and cowboy boots emblazoned with the Olympic rings. Pratt once described himself as intolerant of “bullshit and wimps,” and the wealthy 58-year-old has stirred resentment with his rough, autocratic manner. Colleagues say that the only things King and Pratt have in common are a love of country music and a cool respect for one another. Add to the list their uneasy relationship with Calgary’s Mayor Ralph Kein, 44, an early critic of oco’s public relations. To the annoyance of King and Pratt, the
mayor was called in by ioc president Juan Antonio Samaranch last May to help restore the organizing committee’s battered image. Quips Kein: “If we’re a triumvirate, we’re a loosely knit one.”
Yet, as the drama approaches its climax, the Calgary team is drawing accolades more often than criticism. As Pratt boasted after meeting with the ioc president in Lausanne, Switzerland, last month, “Samaranch told King and myself that the problem with Calgary was that there were no problems, that we have to invent problems.” A mini-corporation with 485 staff members and 9,400 volunteers, oco has overseen the construction of $350 million in sports facilities without the cost overruns that plagued the 1976 Montreal Games. Luck and savvy have put it in a profit position. Its negotiations for television rights produced a record $386 million from ABC. And payments from corporate sponsors, suppliers and licensees exceeded the original $ 50-million target by 60 per cent. Says Robert Niven, oco’s volunteer vice-chairman: “We set out to produce a half-billion-dollar Games, and it ended up as $1 billion. Our revenue so exceeded our wildest dreams that we improved the Games.”
The dream of staging the Olympics goes back to December, 1978, when Kng and Niven decided that the city should bid for the 1988 Games. It was the height of the oil boom, and Calgary was a magnet for people and money. As well, Canada was due for a turn, having bid six times to be a winter host. Kng and Niven, both members of the Calgary Booster Club, which promotes amateur sport, raised $3.1 million and obtained a $200-million commitment from the federal government. Recalls Niven: “Our strategy was simple. Get to know every ioc member worldwide and tell them the Calgary story and what we could do for sports.” The lobbyists were liberal with free trips to Calgary and with gifts, among them Inuit soapstone carvings and maple leaf brooches in gold plate. As Kng has said: “It was perhaps like being Zsa Zsa Gabor’s seventh husband. We knew what was expected of
us. The challenge was to make it unusual and exciting.”
On September 30, 1981, in Baden-Baden, West Germany, the ioc voted on the second ballot to award the 15th Winter Games to Calgary. Then-premier of Alberta Peter Lougheed, who had arrived with a last-minute pledge of $123 million, immediately burst into tears before television cameras. The exuberant Canadian contingent took over the casino where the vote was held, with King’s wife, Jeanette, leading a bunny hop around the floor. Later King and Niven joined Klein at a microphone to sing Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble. Says Niven: “It was like the world exploded. It was the most emotional day of my life.”
The founders of the Calgary Games set out to create an organization in the spirit of the city. Following the model of the Calgary Stampede, King took the radical initiative of staffing the Games largely with volunteers. David Leighton, oco’s first president, resigned over the issue in January, 1983, claiming that paid managers would be more effective. Indeed, from the summer of 1986 to the winter of 1987, the system was chaotic. Volunteers complained they could never find anyone to make a decision. But by the spring of 1987 an efficient line of command had evolved. Says Niven: “It is the way we do things out here. Calgary is a volunteer city.”
In planning for the Games, King never forgot his main purpose-to give the city a lasting inheritance of first-rate sports venues. He insisted on setting aside $60 million for programs and future maintenance at the facilities, which include the Olympic Saddledome, the speed skating Oval and Canada Olympic Park’s ski jump.
Says Ueberroth: “Because of oco, Calgary will be North America’s site of winter sports for the next several decades.”
It was Bill Pratt, the former contractor who took over as oco president in 1983, who supervised the enormous construction project. Says Donald Jacques, general manager of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede: “Because of him, everything was built on time and on budget.” But Pratt rubbed many colleagues the wrong way. As a former co-worker predicted in 1983: “He will get everything built. There may not be many left around to enjoy it, but he’ll get it done.” His relations with the media were also difficult at times. He had barely settled into his job when the Calgary press began criticizing the committee for excessive secrecy and for awarding Olympic contracts to the Calgary public relations firm of Francis Williams and Johnson, where Pratt had been a director, oco insisted there was no conflict of interest. Declares Pratt: “I have been nailed for a lot, but that does not bother me. The record stands.”
Undoubtedly, the largest nightmare concerned Olympic tickets. In 1986 the organization promised that only 10 per cent would go to the “Olympic family.” Then, in October, 1986, oco officials admitted that as many as 50 per cent of the tickets for major events would go to Olympic officials and sponsors. In fact, oco eventually
held 23 per cent of the tickets for organizers, sponsors and government officials. William Wardle, oco’s vice-president of marketing, admits that the situation was poorly handled: “It was an expectation that we built up that we shouldn’t have.” Then, in the fall of 1986, a full-fledged scandal erupted. A few Americans complained to oco that a Calgary firm called World Tickets Inc. was asking them to pay for tickets in U.S. funds. At the time, the American dollar was worth nearly 40 cents more than the Canadian dollar, oco ticket manager James McGregor was fired, and the Calgary police charged him with theft and fraud. McGregor is out on bail awaiting trial in June.
Meanwhile, oco’s troubles produced a crisis of public confidence in the Olympics. The committee’s solution was to install King as a paid chairman and Pratt’s boss in January, 1987. But the
move created tensions between Pratt and King. Says oco manager Terry Steward: “They had to cope with each other’s egos.” And despite his charm, King was often touchy with the press. The media, in turn, became increasingly alienated. Says Ralph Mellanby, executive producer of sports for Toronto-based CTV, the host broadcaster: “I have always felt on the perimeter out there. The way I perceive it, oco is an oilman’s, cattleman’s Calgary thing. It is no nonsense and no bullshit.”
The ioc was frustrated by what it saw as oco’s refusal to collaborate and profit from its Olympic experience. Montreal lawyer Richard Pound, an ioc vice-president, compared the organizing committee’s attitude to his dealings with wealthy widows: “At first they cannot do anything. Then, in a few months, they know everything. Not only that, they have always known everything. And we, the ioc, who have organized 14 Games before, know nothing.” After Samaranch met with Klein in Switzerland and suggested that he take charge of oco’s public relations, Klein prepared a 10-page report on the subject and set up a special committee to resolve the problems. Last fall, at Samaranch’s suggestion, the mayor toured European capitals to promote the Games, a move that annoyed oco insiders. Says one oco manager: “Samaranch told Klein he should go if he was worried about the Games, and Klein leapt at the chance.”
Still, as the Games approached, public discontent slowly gave way to a spirit more in keeping with the Olympic ideal. Last November polls showed that 90 per cent of Calgarians supported the Games. At oco, among the hardworking managers, there is little time for bickering and bruised egos. Says the typically brusque Pratt: “There is no tomorrow with the Olympics. You better get it right the first time.” When the Olympics are over and the flame extinguished, the controversial club of Calgarians hope to be remembered chiefly for the fact that they got it right.
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