Leaping into the Limelight

Edmonton isn't the end of the world— but you can see it from there

Brian Bergman July 30 2001

Leaping into the Limelight

Edmonton isn't the end of the world— but you can see it from there

Brian Bergman July 30 2001

Leaping into the Limelight

Edmonton isn't the end of the world— but you can see it from there


Brian Bergman

-Ralph Klein, then mayor of Calgary, in a 1988 speech

That’s not the sort of thing the premier of all Alberta would say these days. But Edmontonians have long memories—especially for slights from their southern rivals—and many can still recite by heart Klein’s flippant 13-year-old remark. Residents of the Alberta capital have heard all the clichés before. The city is flat and remote, cold for 10 months of the year and mosquito infested for the other two. Its most defining feature is a shopping mall, for crying out loud.

Nonsense. The North Saskatchewan River, which carves Edmonton in half, provides the kind of undulating relief—and treed

urban parkland—befitting a city set where the prairie prepares to yield to the foothills and Rocky Mountains beyond. Remote? Only to those who think Canada is no more than a collection of cities huddled near the American border. Cold? Yes, Edmonton winters can be harsh, but the other three seasons are often glorious and the growing season is actually longer here than in more southerly Calgary. Mosquitoes? Well, OK.

But defining features? As this is being read, Edmontonians are in the midst of a series of summer celebrations—including the annual Folk Music Festival, International Fringe Theatre Festival and Heritage Days multicultural fair—all of them among the most successful and well-attended events of their kind in Canada. Moreover, residents are preparing to do what, arguably, they do best: stage a massive, volunteer-driven international sports event that will again draw the eyes of the world to Canada’s most northerly major city. This time, its the 2001 World Championships in Athletics, a 10-day track-and-field extravaganza opening on Aug. 3.

For 10 days as host of the world’s biggest track-and-field competition, Edmonton really will be the City of Champions

Edmonton has been down this road before. In 1978, the city hosted the Commonwealth Games, followed five years later by the World University Games (otherwise known as the Universiade). But as significant as those events were, they’re dwarfed by the world trackand-field championships, which began in 1983 and are held every two years. This is the first time they are being staged in North America. While track-and-field events tend to fly below the average North American sports fans’ radar, they have huge appeal in the rest of the planet. Millions of television viewers worldwide— promoters claim it will be in the billions, cumulatively—are expected to take in at least some of the Edmonton games. Athletes from 200 countries are participating, and 2,600 international media will be on hand to record their accomplishments.

Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith can barely contain his excitement at that prospect. “There will be millions of people,” he enthuses, “who never heard of Edmonton, and it will be stamped on their memories, forever, that the first world championships in North America

were held in Edmonton. My God, we could never afford to buy that kind of publicity!”

The world championships also promise to put a new focus on track and field—and, in the case of Canadian athletes, at least, provide a chance to put their disappointing performance at last year’s Summer Olympics in Sydney behind them. For American runners Maurice Greene and Marion Jones—respectively, the world’s fastest man and fastest woman—it’s a chance to compete close to home. That perhaps explains why the two superstars waived their normal $75,000 appearance fees when they came to Edmonton this spring for a two-day publicity tour on behalf of the event. “It’s not always about the money,” Greene told reporters. “It’s important to promote the only world championships ever in North America. ” Jones, who won a stunning five Olympic medals, including three gold, in Sydney, agreed. “This is the largest track-and-field stage I’m going to experience in North America,” she said. “It’s not the United States, but it’s the next best thing.” Canada’s own track stars also view the Edmonton games as a unique opportunity. Donovan Bailey secured the right to compete at the worlds by winning the 100-m sprint at the Canadian Championships

held in Edmonton June 22 to 24. He did so despite a heelspur injury that left him visibly limping between the qualifying heats and final race. Bailey, 33, says his run in Edmonton next month will be his last race before retiring. (Bruny Surin, 34, who did not run in the Canadian championships due to injury but was seeking a medical bye to the worlds, may be nearing the end of his career as well.) Following his tide run in Edmonton, Bailey was asked why he’d bother contesting the worlds when he was hurt and running well behind his career best. He shrugged, suggesting the answer was simple. “The only reason,” he said, “is that it’s at home and it’s my last year.” Track stars are not the only ones for whom the 2001 championships hold special significance. Perhaps because of lingering stereotypes about their city in other parts of Canada, such international athletic events— and sports in general—are a particular source of pride for Edmontonians. I should know. I grew up in west Edmonton, not

that far from where The Mall that Ate a City now sits. While I was in my early 20s, the Edmonton Eskimos won five straight Grey Cups—a record still unmatched by any other team in the Canadian Football League. The Edmonton Oilers quickly followed up that feat by winning five Stanley Cups over seven years—little wonder given a roster that included Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, Andy Moog and, at the top of that embarrassment of talent, Wayne Gretzky.

Sweet days: American fans might not have known where Edmonton was, but they knew we had the best player—and perhaps even the best team—in the history of the sport. Then came the fateful day—Aug. 9, 1988—when Oilers owner Peter Pocklington sold Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and the Great One wept as reporters looked on aghast. I remember being in a downtown bar a few hours later, feeling as if I was at a wake. Another round, boys; the dream is over.

By then, I was a visitor in my home town. I had left Edmonton two years earlier to live in Yellowknife, followed by stints in Toronto, Ffalifax and now—yes, I confess—Calgary. During those years, Edmonton fell on hard times. In the early 1990s, Ralph Klein’s Conservative government launched dramatic spending cuts to slay the provincial deficit, and the Alberta capital took the biggest hit. Calgary, meanwhile, which had already bested Edmonton by hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics, blossomed into Canada’s second-largest centre for head offices and earned lavish praise in the national media as the “heart of the New West.” Edmontonians looked on with wounded pride, and envy.

But times have changed. Fuelled in part by the massive investment in the oilsands reserves of northern Alberta,

Edmonton is now leading the country in economic growth among major cities. One thing that hasn’t altered, though, is the city’s passion for sports. In 1984, Edmonton declared itself the “City of champions.” It’s a moniker that strikes many outsiders—especially Calgarians—as grating and pretentious. But it fits. The tradition of winning teams stretches back to the early part of the 20th century, when a women’s basketball squad, the Edmonton Grads, dominated that sport for the 25 years of their existence, winning 502 of the 522 games they played and emerging victorious in demonstration competitions at four successive Olympic Games. In the 1950s, the Eskimos, quarterbacked by Jackie Parker and (future Alberta premier) Don Getty, won their first string of Grey Cups. And while recent Eskimos and Oilers squads failed to revive the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, they have remained among the most exciting and competitive teams in their respective leagues.

As one makes the rounds in Edmonton, the city’s rich sports legacy is never far from the surface. Smith, who played halfback for

the Eskimos from 1956 to 1963, likes to tell the story of meeting billionaire businessman Li Ka-shing in Fiong Kong. “There’s two things he asked me about,” says Smith with a smile. “Wayne Gretzky and West Edmonton Mall.” (There’s that mall again.) Adds the mayor: “What does he know about hockey? Probably not much. But he knows about Gretzky, the Oilers and Edmonton.”

Hugh Campbell has a few more wrinkles and a bit less hair than he did when he coached the Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup victories. But Campbell, 60, who later served as the team’s general manager and is now its president, still evinces the same homespun and self-effacing manner. He speaks warmly of his strong friendships in the city’s sporting fraternity (even if his comrades roped him into being the volunteer chair of ticket sales for the 2001 world championships). Those personal ties convinced him to stay in the city after his coaching days were over. “Believe me, I’m not that talented, but I could make more money somewhere else,” he says. “But it’s fun to be in a city where sports are important.” Fun—and, at times, stressful. Both Campbell and Kevin Lowe, now the Oilers’ general manager, agree that Edmontonians have high expectations of their sports franchises. Lowe, a former all-star defenceman who played 15 seasons for the Oilers, believes Edmonton’s sports prowess has a lot to do with its long-standing rivalry with Calgary. For the athletes, he adds, the pressure to perform well is a positive thing. “It’s what sports teams do in Edmonton—they just win.” Edmontonians also like to shine whenever the international spodight is on them. Jack Agrios, an Edmonton lawyer and chair of the 2001 World Championships, says the city’s track record as host of the Commonwealth Games and the Universiade played a major role in its winning bid for the worlds in 1998 over Paris, New Delhi and Stanford, Calif. The city’s community spirit was evident again last fall when organizers put out a call for volunteers. “We needed around 6,000 people,” recalls Agrios. “In a seven-day period, we had something like 14,000 applicants. We finally just had to shut it down.”

The worlds are being staged on a $ 125-million budget, with $80 million from the federal, provincial and municipal governments and the rest from sponsorship and ticket sales. The biggest single expenditure: $40 million for new and improved athletics facilities, including a $23-million facelift for the Eskimos’ home venue, Commonwealth Stadium, where the major competitions will be held. An analysis done for the 1998 bid team estimates the games will generate $387 million in economic activity, with $157 million flowing to the Edmonton area and $65 million to Calgary.

Because some track and field events have a low profile in North America, organizers are trying to educate spectators about the sports. Typically, up to five events are under way at any one time, often making it difficult to follow what is happening. In Edmonton, two large video screens, one for track and the other for field competitions, will help fans stay focused, and allow for both liveaction and replays. As well, the stadium announcer will alert the audience to performances by world-record holders and Olympic champions and provide background on their feats. “Track purists don’t need this information but others do,” says competition director Paul Hardy. “At the end of this, hopefully people will say, ‘I’ve found a new sport that I really love,’ and this will have a trickledown effect across Canada.”

Community spirit is strong. Organizers needed 6,000 volunteers; 14,000 applied

In fact, organizers and competitors alike are banking on the Edmonton event to boost the fortunes of track and field on this continent. Hardy, a London, Ont., native who spent a dozen years in Europe working for the International Amateur Athletic Federation, says this is an especially crucial juncture for athletics in Canada. “Unfortunately, most of the news generated out of Sydney was negative,” notes Hardy. “This is our chance to turn the corner.” Those sentiments are echoed by Les Gramantik, Canada’s national track-and-field coach. “We have to attract some young guys,” he says. “Some of our superstars who have created the most recognition for us are not going to be around much longer.”

While these may be dark days for Canadian track and field,

both Hardy and Gramantik believe there are several young Canadians capable of generating excitement—and medal performances—in Edmonton. Among the athletes to watch, they say, are discus thrower Jason Tunks, 26, who ranks fourth in the world in his sport; runner Kevin Sullivan, 27, who had a strong showing in Sydney and is currendy ranked ninth in the 1,500 m; and high jumper Mark Boswell, 23, who won silver at the last worlds in Seville, Spain.

For all of that, the Edmonton games are proving a tough sell beyond Alberta’s borders. Only about seven per cent of the ticket sales are coming from other provinces and territories, and 15 per cent from the rest of the world. By comparison, Edmontonians account for 67 per cent of ticket sales, with other Albertans picking up the remaining 11 per cent. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that, as of last week, nearly a quarter of the available seats—or about 100,000 tickets—remained unsold for the 10-day event, including 8,000 for the opening ceremonies. That leaves some observers fretting that all those TV cameras trained on Commonwealth Stadium may be panning some sparsely filled stands.

My hunch? Come August, most of those seats will be filled, by local residents. When civic pride is on the line, Edmontonians can usually be counted on to run for the gold. E53