After seven years of toiling, Calgary is ready for the Games

BOB LEVIN February 2 1988


After seven years of toiling, Calgary is ready for the Games

BOB LEVIN February 2 1988



After seven years of toiling, Calgary is ready for the Games

By all accounts, it will be a colors-blazing, music-blaring, Olympic-sized extravaganza—a rousing curtain raiser to the xv Winter Games. Some 1,700 athletes will stride, country by country, into Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, grinning and waving. They will be greeted by 60,000 cheering spectators, decked out in color-coded ponchos and arranged to form a living backdrop of the interlocking Olympic circles and the Canadian flag. Waves of upbeat music will engulf them, some of it prerecorded to keep lips from sticking to ice-cold instruments. Mounties will ride to the music on horseback, and the Canadian Forces’ daredevil squad, the Snowbirds, will soar overhead. Eventually, the final torchbearer of the 88-day cross-country relay-his or her identity still a closely guarded secret-will dash in to light the Olympic cauldron. As soon as the flame is lit, 1,000 pigeons will race across the sky, their high-protein feedings cut off to intensify their homing instinctsand spare the spectators below. Then, with as many as three billion viewers tuned in around the world, Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé will formally open the Games, the moment of truth for Calgary’s exhilarated-and exhausted-Olympic organizers.

making. a dream The date more During will than be that Feb. two time 13,1988, decades old Calgarians, and and it led will seven by mark years Olympiques the in fulfilment the actual Calgary of Olympics (oco), have been building, fund-raising, squabbling, publicizing and primping. And if they have encountered their share of the controversies that invariably swirl around the Games, they expect to reach opening day on time and on budget-and with plenty to boast about. They can already recite a litany of Westernstyle superlatives: the most countries participating in a Winter Olympics (58); the most expensive Winter Games ever ($1 billion); and the greatest legacy left behind-$350 million worth of sumptuous athletic facilities, officially launched in recent months with some world-class public parties. And oco chairman Frank King exults that the 16-day Games themselves will produce “an immense pride for everyone involved, that sense of being part of something special in Canadian history.”

Once the action starts, oco officials essentially will be running a massive multi-ring circus. Aided by some 9,400 volunteers, they will be staging 10 sports and three demonstration events at venues scattered 90 km west from downtown Calgary through the Bow

Valley corridor to the Rockies. Among the farthest flung-and certainly the most potentially troublesome-is Mount Allan, the alpine ski slope that, after widespread criticism, was dramatically improved. But its notorious lack of snow still leaves organizers dreaming of a white Olympics or at least one cold enough to keep manmade snow from melting. Off the slopes, oco officials must see to the care and feeding of the athletes, while also coping with a demanding media horde of 5,000 and an estimated 100,000 visiting sports fans. And with all the assembled masses, a small army of security personnel must blanket the area, ever mindful of the haunting terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972. “We’re prepared for the worst,” declares Const. Bryant Petkau, a member of the Calgary police tactical unit. “The worst? You name it. I can’t tell you what worst is.”

The best will undoubtedly be the athletes themselves. The glittering assemblage of international stars will launch assaults on the clock, the elementsand the record books. Canada’s Brian Orser, the current world champion in figure skating, is expected to strike gold-if he can conquer U.S. rival Brian Boitano. Meanwhile, Canada’s Laurie Graham and Rob Boyd will take on such legendary Swiss skiers as Maria Walliser, Peter Müller and Pirmin Zurbriggen. Canadian speed skater Gaétan Boucher, who is already Canada’s greatest Olympic performer with four medals, will be trying to add to that collection. The East German contingent will feature the dazzling Katarina Witt, who could win her second gold medal, and a trio of women speed skaters led by stalwart Karin Kania. And in hockey, the Soviets’ path to gold could be blocked by the world champion Swedes. Still, the prospects of Canada’s own hockey team rose last December when it scored a stunning upset against the Soviet Olympic team in the prominent Izvestia Cup and went on to win the tournament.

Canadian organizers have already worked their own minor miracle. Operating in the oil-slumping Alberta economy, oco emulated the example of the Los Angeles Summer Games of 1984, whose hard-core commercialism produced a $240-million profit. While the Ottawa and Alberta governments also weighed in heavily, the Calgary Games are expected to make a healthy profit primarily because they will also break out in corporate colors, from Coca-Cola red to Labatt blue. Kodak will fill the sky with hot-air balloons in the shape of everything from an Egyptian sphinx to a Shell gasoline pump, a display that Mayor Ralph Klein enthuses will “add to the spirit and vibrancy of the Games.”

By now, the story of how Calgary secured the Olympics has become the stuff of local legend, with the unmistakable moral of

“try, try again.” Calgary organizers bid unsuccessfully in 1964, 1968 and 1972. But led by oilman King, they mounted another quest in 1979. Playing by the curious rules of the competition, they jetted around the globe to lobby International Olympic Committee (ioc) dignitaries with gifts and glowing reports about Calgary. In September, 1981, the ioc chose Calgary.

It would prove considerably harder-and enormously expensive-to prepare for the Olympics. Among the most crucial early tasks was the sale of television rights. In January, 1984, in the elegant Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, oco held an auction among the three major U.S. networks, which King described as “one hell of a poker game, maybe the world’s biggest.” By the time the bidding was over, ABC had agreed to pay a record

$386 million for U.S. rights. But ABC negotiators were not pleased, particularly because the Torontobased CTV network had already secured Canadian rights for $4.5 million. Johnny Esaw, CTV’S vicepresident in charge of sports, received a midnight call from Roone Arledge, ABC’S president of sports and news. “He said oco had really stuck it to him,” says Esaw. In fact, because advertising rates have slumped, ABC may be stuck with a $50-million loss.

For oco, however, the television deal was a mammoth budgetary boon. That, combined with revenues from corporate sponsors, government contracts and ticket sales, is expected to earn $582 million for oco, offsetting the projected $550 million in planning, marketing and operating costs-and leaving a $32-million cushion. A separate set of books covers the building and upgrading of facilities. That tab runs to $395 million: $200 million from Ottawa, $129 million from Alberta and $66 million from Calgary.

But the neat set of numbers belies the sometimes trouble-filled road to Calgary. Most damaging was the ticket scandal of 1986. oco ticket manager James McGregor was fired for allegedly instructing 8,000 Americans to make mailorder payments to his own company; charges are expected to be heard in court this June. Would-be spectators were also enraged when in October, 1986, oco officials admitted that as many as 50 per cent of tickets for major events had been reserved for Olympic officials and sponsors. By adding new seats at some venues, oco managed to cut that figure back to 23 per cent, but not before the scandal touched off a spate of negative publicity. In a move that unsettled oco officials, ioc president Juan Antonio Samaranch asked Klein last May to get involved with public relations. The outspoken mayor set up a committee to try to enhance the image of the Games, but some media sniping persisted.

More significantly, the Lubicon Lake Indians, a small Cree

band living 800 km north of Calgary, have been leading a boycott of the Olympic Arts Festival’s exhibition of native Canadian artifacts. The Lubicons, who claim a population of just 457, maintain that the federal government has failed to honor a 48-year-old promise to establish a reserve for them-and the Games represent their last hope to publicize their cause. “I’ll die fighting for this land,” vows band elder Edward Laboucan, 73. “But it won’t be for me, more for my children and grandchildren.”

No amount of controversy, however, can detract from the stellar collection of facilities built for the Games. Securing the government-funded legacy was central to the city’s Olympic bid, and the payoff came quickly. In Calgary itself, the $97.7-million Olympic Saddledome, financed by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, has been home to the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames since 1983. The state-of-the-art arena features the world's largest concrete suspended roof. Last year organizers added

2,600 seats, bringing the capacity to 19,400 and helping to ease the ticket crunch for Olympic hockey and figure skating events.

Equally impressive is the Olympic Oval, a $39.9-million federal contribution to the University of Calgary campus. The largest enclosed speed skating oval in the world, it will provide frost-free seats to 4,000 spectators, and smooth, windless conditions to competitors in 10 men’s and women’s races. At a World Cup competition last December-watched by 1.5 million Canadian TV viewers—seven world records were set, and more are expected at the Olympics. Marvelled the East German Kania, who set a world mark in the 1,000-m race at Calgary: “There are some good ice rinks in the world, but this one here is perfect.”

The Calgary campus is also the site of McMahon Stadium. Home to the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, the 28-year-old stadium has undergone a $15.7-million face-lift to feature the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. Some 1,700 athletes will stay in upgraded dormitories on campus, where they will have their own movie theatres, swimming pool and video arcade. And they will eat at the campus dining room, whose menu will include such local fare as buffalo burgers and rabbit pie.

Organizers have ordered 30,000 lb. of beef, 10,000 lb. of chicken, 180,000 eggs and 10,000 lb. of pasta-although the Italian team has received special dispensation to bring its own. The print and broadcast media will be housed in two separate Calgary complexes that cost oco about $25 million.

Meanwhile, oco and the city government built the $5.6-million Olympic Plaza. The downtown square, opposite Calgary’s sandstone city hall, includes a skating rink and a “legacy walk” paved with 20,000 inscribed bricks sold to Calgarians for $19.88 apiece. Each night of the Games thousands of spectators are expected to descend upon the plaza for the stirring medals ceremonies, followed by a Federal Express-sponsored sound-and-light extravaganza. Says oco president Bill Pratt, with typical hyperbole: “There’s never been anything like it in the history of the Olympics.”

Just 15 minutes from downtown Calgary on the Trans-Canada

Highway lies Canada Olympic Park, built by the federal government for $60 million. The concrete ski jump towers, which command the foothills like gawky grain elevators, are frequently hit by dangerous winds. But for the Maes family, who live just 1.5 km away, the location could hardly be better. During pre-Games competition, family members gathered at a bedroom window to watch through binoculars, and they plan to buy a larger pair for the Olympics. Says Elly Maes, 43: “We can really see them going down the length of the ramp and then in midair. The only thing we can’t see is when they land.” Near the ski towers lies Canada’s first bobsleigh and luge track, a curving 2,060-m ribbon that drops 120 vertical metres. But that facility could also be affected by the elements. “The track is perfectly built,” says East German luger Jochen Pietzsch. “My main complaint is the wind on a windy day.” Farther west along the highway, through pine-covered hills and the imposing stone wall of the Rockies, is Canmore Nordic Centre, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Calgary. Scenically set in the old mining town of Canmore, the provincially funded $15.4million centre is the site of the biathlon race and perhaps the world’s toughest cross-country skiing courses. Venue manager

Bjorger Pettersen, who designed the trails, says that their steep slopes “reflect the ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains.” Canmore also includes a second village to house 600 athletes. And southeast of there, 90 km from Calgary, lies Mount Allan, the controversial $25.3-million alpine skiing venue, whose ultimate reputation may well rest on the whims of Mother Nature.

Housing for spectators may be more chancy, although organizers insist that anyone who wants a bed will get one. Samaranch and all manner of Olympic, corporate and national potentates will be put up at Calgary’s grand old Palliser Hotel. Other Olympic insiders have snatched up the rest of the 12,000 hotel and motel beds in the Bow corridor between Calgary and Lake Louise, although motel rooms may be available in other areas. A popular alternative is proving to be the city’s Homestay program, under which Calgarians offer a room in their houses for $50 a nightsingle or double, no meals included. In addition, more than 1,700 Calgarians have listed their homes for rent, with the going rate about $2,500 a week.

With such a huge throng of people-and the Games offering a global platform for terrorists-security is paramount. The job falls to a joint command of the Calgary police and the RCMP, which will operate from a second-floor nerve centre at downtown police headquarters and, combined, will spend nearly $20 million. Authorities refuse to reveal the precise size or tactics of their force.

But basically, Calgary’s regular 1,137 police will respond to incidents within city limits, while the RCMP will handle most of the outof-town sites. Particular attention will clearly be paid to the opening ceremonies and to the two athletes’ villages; both are enclosed by double barbed-wire fences and equipped with sophisticated detection systems. Athletes from a risk-prone nation such as the Soviet Union will be closely monitored, and computer programs will show police where VIPS are sitting at the various venues.

At Mount Allan, an armed team of expert-level RCMP skiersresplendent in navy-blue outfits and white toques—will line the slopes. In fact, special tactical squads from both the RCMP and Calgary police, numbering about 100 men in all, will be on duty at all major events during the Winter Games-with snipers perched in strategic positions. The squads, which will carry 9-mm Swiss-made pistols and West Germanmade submachine-guns, have trained for nearly two years, using live ammunition, explosives and smoke bombs. Says Insp. Gerry Baxter, commander of the Calgary police tactical team: “Any incident that requires a specialized response, at any venue, that’s us.”

While the police keep their eyes peeled for terrorists, another heavily equipped force will also be in action: the TV squad, ABC alone will bring a crew of at least 800. But CTV’S 1,100-member team will serve as host broadcaster, a complex $50-million job that involves supplying video feed of every event to as many as 50 countries. The hardware itself is staggering: 12 mobile units, 146

cameras and 71 videotape recorders, plus 72,000 km of coaxial video cable. Camera crews will hover over Mount Allan in helicopters. Executive producer Ralph Mellanby stresses that he wants to avoid electronic pyrotechnics and focus instead on good solid coverage-although he is trying to upgrade sound quality. “I want to be able to hear a skier breathing in the gate,” says Mellanby, “to hear when he becomes airborne and when he lands.”

No matter how impressive the broadcast, not everyone will watch in fascination—or at all. White Rock, B.C., author W.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), who calls amateur athletics one of his “least favorite things in the world,” insists: “I am going to try to be out of the country at the time. After all, there won’t be any decent

television to watch.” Despite such sentiments, organizers remain determinedly upbeat-and intent on fostering a gala atmosphere at the Games themselves. The Olympics, says Mayor Klein, “will give us the opportunity to display during the winter what we do so well in the summer, and that is create a Stampede spirit, a festival spirit.” By Feb. 28, when the Games officially close, organizers will know once and for all whether they managed to sidestep the most malicious of the demons that pursue Olympic hosts, whether their great expectations-as high as the Calgary Tower that will loom over the proceedings-were actually met. They already have their legacy. Now, they want the name Calgary to become world-famous for good times, good management and one more stunning superlative: the greatest Winter Games ever.