The Olympic mecca on the prairie

Athletes descend on Calgary to train for the Nagano Winter Games

DALE EISLER November 24 1997

The Olympic mecca on the prairie

Athletes descend on Calgary to train for the Nagano Winter Games

DALE EISLER November 24 1997

The Olympic mecca on the prairie

Athletes descend on Calgary to train for the Nagano Winter Games



As usual at Canada Olympic Park, wind is a factor. A midday gale whipping off the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains is kicking up dust and sand, creating less-than-ideal conditions on the bobsled track. With no snow in sight, this could be February, 1988, and the Calgary Winter Olympic Games, when warm chinook winds melted snow and forced postponements in the bobsleigh and ski jump events. On this day nearly 10 years later, the fierce wind has lifted the giant Canadian flag atop the pole above the bobsled run to its fully unfurled dimensions of six by 12 metres. But Jason Wing, a brakeman for the British bobsleigh team, has other things on his mind than an Alberta chinook. He is going through a ritual of physical and mental preparation: warm-up exercises followed by quiet solitude, concentrating on every twist and turn of the 1,500-m ice chute that awaits the British four-man bobsleigh team. At the starting gate, they are rubbing shoulders with teams from all over the world that have descended on Calgary to compete in the first World Cup event of the bobsleigh season.

For Wing, 32, the chance to spend 10 days of training in Calgary is like checking into Olympic heaven, even with the wind. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” says Wing, who resigned from his job as a physical education teacher to be on the British team. “Everything you could possibly need as an athlete is here. I love it.” And so he should. Back home, the Brits practise outside London near an amusement park on a dilapidated 50-m bobsleigh track where the sleds run on rails, not ice. “You have to walk 10 minutes through undergrowth just to reach the bloody thing,” says Wing.

For thousands of athletes from across Canada and around the world, Calgary has become a mecca for training and competition as they prepare for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in February. The Canadian city that staged one of the most successful Winter Games ever arguably has been the most successful in maintaining and building on their physical legacy. Just as the Calgary Olympics unfolded with few hitches, so, too, has the original strategy to ensure that $450 million in facilities constructed for the $900-million Games became part of ongoing amateur sport development in Canada. “Legacy was paramount in our thoughts,” says Bill Warren of Calgary, president of the Canadian Olympic Association and a key organizer for the Calgary Games. “So many Olympic bids are based on tourism and what it can do for the city in a financial sense. This was built on the desire to improve facilities for amateur sport.”

The physical legacy is certainly impressive. At Canada Olympic Park stand five ski-jump ramps, including the breathtaking 90-m colossus where novice British jumper Eddie (The Eagle) Edwards fluttered to folk-hero status in 1988. Next to it is the combined bobsleigh and luge run that together snake 2,060 m downhill and include 80 km of refrigeration pipe connected to an ice plant with an ice-making capacity six times that of a National Hockey League rink. (At the World Cup event there last week, Canada’s twoand four-men bobsleigh teams both finished first.) At the foot of the hill is a permanent Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, a training centre for athletes that includes specialized exercise and training equipment, temporary living quarters, and the executive offices for the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA), the permanent body charged with managing the city’s Olympic facilities.

The other major site is a 10-minute drive away at the University of Calgary. It includes the massive 23,400-square-metre Olympic speed-skating oval, considered the finest of its kind in the world. But the oval, built at a cost of $40 million, is more than a frozen pond where a privileged few race on funny-looking skates. Inside the perimeter of the 400-m skating track are two Olympic-size hockey ice surfaces, an eight-lane speed-training track for runners along with a state-of-theart weight-training room. Adjoining the oval is the university’s physical education facility, housing a gymnastic centre, a gymnasium, an Olympic-size swimming pool, another weight-training facility, and a high-tech human performance laboratory where athletes’ progress and training regimens can be monitored and adjusted to improve results.

Also on campus is the National Sports Centre, dedicated to supporting the 160 nationally carded athletes who train in Calgary with everything from psychological counselling to help with their education or job résumé writing. Nearby is the Father David Bauer arena, permanent home of both Canada’s men’s and women’s hockey teams and headquarters for the Canadian Hockey Association. Following a 2,250square-metre expansion last year, the arena includes one of the most sophisticated sports rehabilitation clinics in Canada. The city also boasts the 19,000-seat Saddledome, which helped win the Olympic bid for Calgary, and since opening in 1983, has been home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames. Finally, 130 km west in Canmore, near the gates of Banff National Park, is the Olympic Nordic Centre, considered among the best cross-country and biathlon facilities in the world.

For Canadian athletes familiar with facilities elsewhere, Calgary is second to none as a training site for both winter and even many summer sports. “We have absolutely everything we need right here,” says Winnipeg native Susan Auch, speed-skating silver medallist at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and at 31, one of Canada’s best medal hopes for the Nagano Games. “The foresight that was shown to create facilities and ongoing support for training in Calgary far exceeds anything else I’ve seen in other countries.” The facilities are so good that Chris Lori of Windsor, Ont., veteran driver with the 15-member Canadian bobsleigh team, says foreign competitors are envious. “It’s really a great reflection on our country that other athletes love to come here and train,” says Lori, 35, who will be competing in his fourth Games at Nagano. “From what I’ve seen, no other country has done as good a job as we have with its Olympic legacy.”

Or is putting it to such good use: 13 Canadian national teams, for both winter and summer sports, use the city and its facilities as their permanent training site. The latest to call Calgary home is the women’s hockey team. The reigning world champs have yet to lose a game at the world championships, which began in 1990, and despite an expected challenge from the Americans, are gold-medal favorites for Nagano when women’s hockey joins the roster of Olympic medal sports. After six years of a nomadic existence, the team put down roots in Calgary when camp opened on Sept. 7. After a recent 90minute morning practice at the Father Bauer arena, in preparation for an intra-squad game that night, the Canadian women walked across

the rehab centre for 30-minute

the hall from their dressing room workouts on stationary bikes. Barely breathing heavily as she pumps the pedals, forward Angela James marvels at the facilities and training support now available to the team. “It’s made a huge difference centralizing the team in Calgary,” says James, 32, of Toronto, who has been on the squad since its inception in 1990 and a hockey player since age 8. “People say they can see the difference because we’re on the ice everyday, and by having such a focused program, we are really developing a team chemistry.”

The Calgary success story contrasts sharply with the experiences of other cities that have staged the Winter Games only to see their facilities fall into disuse. ‘We saw this as a long-term public investment and other cities see the Olympics as an event,” says Calgary Mayor Al Duerr, who joined city council in 1983 and succeeded Ralph Klein as mayor in 1989. In Lillehammer, Norway,

for example, the ice arena built for the 1994 Games—where the Canadian men’s hockey team narrowly missed a gold medal in a shootout with the Swedes—is seldom used as a sports centre and has been turned into a part-time convention facility. The speed-skating oval near Albertville, France, site of three Canadian short-track medals at the 1992 Games, was disassembled and sold off piecemeal when the Games ended and a $40-million bobsleigh-luge facility is closed. And in the civil-war-ravaged former Yugoslavia, many of the facilities from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics—where Canadian speed-skater Gaétan Boucher won two golds and a bronze—are now in ruins. Even the

bobsled track at Lake Placid, N.Y.

built for the 1980 Winter Games, is no longer sanctioned for international four-man events.

But for Calgary, the biggest hurdle was to overcome an Olympic legacy of a different kind—the public doubt and cynicism over the $ 1-billion debt left to Montreal taxpayers after the 1976 Summer Games. Jerry Joynt, former head of communications for the Calgary Olympics, said in the years leading up to the 1988 Games he was constantly answering questions about the Montreal mess. “Every speech I gave I was asked how sure we were about making a profit and leaving a legacy,” says Joynt. “The media always quoted [former Montreal mayor] Jean Drapeau’s statement that the Montreal Olympics could no more have a deficit than a man could have a baby. We were determined to prove our Games would be a financial success.” Although the debt from Montreal is gone, so too is much of its sport legacy. For example, the former $83-million Olympic Velodrome is now a botanical gardens, the rowing venue has long been closed and the Olympic Stadium, built at a cost of $800 million, has remained a perennial money-loser.

By comparison, Calgary has not only kept its facilities operating, but has been able : to finance their ongoing oper; ations and expansion. The task of overseeing and man! aging the Olympic legacy bej longs to CODA, which was ; formed in 1979 to mount Calgary’s Olympic bid. After the city was awarded the Games in 1981, CODA’s mandate was changed to manage and financially support the facilities

and Olympic sports following the Games. But just having a plan was not enough. The key to maintaining the Olympic legacy was the financial success of the Games themselves, which turned a profit of $150 million, $85 million of which went to CODA as a permanent endowment fund and the remainder to the Canadian Olympic Association. The investment has since grown to $165 million, with half the annual interest earmarked to cover the upkeep and help pay operational costs of the Olympic facilities. As well, the fund pays annual grants to the 12 Winter Olympic sports, this year totalling $1.2 million. “There’s no question that Calgary’s approach to Olympic legacy has been unique,” says Dick Pound, the Montreal-based vice-president of the International Olympic Committee. “I can’t think of any others who have done a better job, and it really is a model for anyone organizing the Games.”

Many factors were crucial to the financial success of the Calgary Olympics, not the least of which was $225 million from the federal government, $125 million in provincial funding and $50 million from the city. But the critical piece was the $308 million paid by U.S. television network ABC for exclusive rights to televise the Games.

The contract dwarfed the $80 million in TV revenue for the 1984 Sarejevo Games and even far exceeded the $200 million that ABC paid for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Calgary collected its windfall when the three major U.S. networks got into a bidding war in 1984. With inflation running near double digits, Pound says, the networks merely extrapolated costs four years ahead at similar inflation rates— only to see inflation dwindle. Another factor was the huge TV audience that ABC attracted televising the “Miracle on Ice” from Lake Placid in 1980, when the upstart U.S. hockey team staged a stunning upset of the powerful Soviet Union en route to a gold medal. Dreaming of a similar audience, the rivals were not content to let ABC go unchallenged as the Olympic network.

Even with the ongoing financial support of CODA, the Calgary facilities must attract more than just high-performance athletes. As such, Canada Olympic Park—located along the Trans-Canada Highway on the way from Calgary to Banff—has remained a yearround hub of activity for world-class athletes and others just out for a good time. “We wanted this place to be viable throughout the year and a place that was accessible for all people, for all kinds of reasons,” says Dennis Kadatz, president of CODA.

Sprawling over 142 hectares, Canada Olympic Park offers everything from an 80-team beach volleyball league and 15 km of mountain-bike trails in summer, to Western Canada’s largest snowboarding school in winter. Last year, 580,000 people visited the park, including 184,000 who bought lift tickets to use the park’s recreational ski facility and another 3,045 who paid $40 to ride the “Bullet,” a bobsled designed specifically for people wanting to sample the exhilaration of the high-speed sport. And under construction is a privately owned miniature golf course on land leased to a local businessman who will pay a percentage of gross income to CODA. “We’re always searching for new sources of revenue,” says Kadatz. And finding them: out of $18.9 million in total 1996 revenue, CODA was able to generate $6.7 million from its operations—including more than $1 million in retail sales—with the remainder covered by the endowment fund created by the profits of the 1988 Games.

It’s a similar story at the Olympic Oval. Besides the more than 500 athletes from around the world who used the oval for high-performance training last year, 260,000 took advantage of the facility for pure recreation. Casual skaters pay a $4 fee and people can use the 452 -m track that surrounds the speed-skating oval free of charge. Thus, on any given day the world-class facility can have the feel of a local community centre. Seniors will be walking on the track for , while a girls’ ringette team practises on one of the hockey rinks, a university intramural hockey game takes place on the other, and a team of skaters from Japan works out on the speed-skating oval.

But for all the obvious success in making the benefits of the Games live on, there are those who believe mistakes were made. Among them is Ken Read, former member of Canada’s World Cup skiing team who argues that alpine skiing has not reaped the benefits other sports have enjoyed. Although the Nakiska ski area at Kananaskis Park was built for the Games, Read says it is not dedicated to high-performance international-calibre skiers. Moreover, now a privately owned facility, Nakiska gets no financial support from CODA. “Facilities were built for bobsleigh and luge, but what alpine skiing got was a recreational facility,” says Read, now £ a Calgary-based business consultant. “I wish we had not § built Nakiska. It has never come anywhere near the expec1 tations touted.” Read says that design flaws based on princi£ pies used for ski developments in Colorado, not Alberta— ^ namely a north-facing slope—has made Nakiska a cold and £ snow-deprived ski area. The only period when Canada’s alpine ski team has reserved time on Nakiska is for three weeks in the fall prior to the start of the public ski season, often before suitable snow conditions are available.

Also at issue is the whole notion of pouring tax dollars into building costly facilities for sports such as ski jumping, bobsleigh and luge that attract few participants. Warren of the Canadian Olympic Association admits arguments to justify the facilities can get “fuzzy” because many subjective factors are involved. But he notes that studies have shown the federal and Alberta governments more than recouped their investment in taxes and other ongoing economic spinoffs from the

Games. “I admit it’s hard to make a case for investment in some of these facilities, and you have to use some nebulous factors like how the Games helped draw the country together,” says Warren. “Still, there is no doubt these facilities have had an impact and will have for many years to come.” Perhaps the best evidence is in the country’s medal performance at the Winter Olympics. After winning five medals in 1988, Canada captured seven in 1992 and another 13 in 1994. The expectations are for even more in Nagano, proving that the legacy of 1988 is alive and well—and paying dividends in gold, silver and bronze. □