The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

As Calgary approaches its 30th anniversary of hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics, questions around its sporting legacy, and the infrastructure that support it, are at the forefront.

At a press conference under the curved roof of the Scotiabank Saddledome, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman described the Flames’ arena as, “historic in many ways” but also an, “old, antiquated, inefficient building.”

The statement comes as the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBEC) works through the midpoint of their $5 million city-funded feasibility study of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Their findings, to be presented to City Hall in July, will determine whether the city proceeds with an official bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

skijumpeditThe 90-metre tower overlooks alpine race training at Canada Olympic Park, as seen from the chairlift in March. Photo by Patrick Gibson

A Postmedia-commissioned Mainstreet poll released two weeks ago found 61 per cent of Calgarians surveyed were on board with bringing the Olympics back to Calgary.

Amidst uncertainty around sporting infrastructure, one thing’s for sure: cost-wise, these aren’t your grandfather’s Winter Olympics.

New century, big money

For starters, broadcast fees have ballooned. In 1988 CTV paid $4.5 million to broadcast the Games. In contrast, the fees for domestic rights for the Vancouver 2010 Games represented an estimated $90 million portion of a $153 million dual winter/summer Olympic deal.

“In ‘88, there were 46 events in an Olympics, now it's over 100 in the same two weeks. You have this interconnectivity between this many events all trying to fit into a broadcast window,” says Darrell MacLachlan, chief of race for the Vancouver 2010 alpine events and venue inspector for the International Ski Federation.

He highlights the delicate balance between athlete safety, fan experience and scheduling concerns when working with an outdoor venue like 1988 host alpine hill Nakiska. “You have to be able to look to a venue to be able to make adaptations to changing days, changing weather, changing start elevations.”

Having worked the 1988 alpine events, MacLachlan was satisfied with Nakiska’s role as a host at the time. He adds however, that 30 years later the ski resort has fallen out of Olympic standard. “The sport changes, people change, speeds change,” he says. “The G-force applied by a ski edge now is greater than it was back in the ‘80s. You have to have a snowpack that's able to work with that."

nakiskaEDITNakiska’s layout would require some topography and forestry changes in order to be a contender in the bid for the Olympic games says International Ski Federation inspector Darrell MacLachlan. Photo Courtesy davebloggs007, Creative Commons license

Considering the transformation that Nakiska’s terrain would have to undergo, there is speculation that a Calgary bid would favour annual World Cup host Lake Louise as the alpine site.

“Anything is possible at a certain price-point, as long as you have some basic backbone of a venue to start with." -Darrell MacLachlan

“Back then you had two distinct finish areas: you had the bottom of the mountain, where the speed events finished, and you have the upper mountain where there was a fairly minimalistic finish for slalom and giant slalom. A current Olympics would say you can’t do that," says MacLachlan.

However, Maclachlan suggests it’s much too early to take anything off the table. “Anything is possible at a certain price-point, as long as you have some basic backbone of a venue to start with."

Shying away from purpose-built solutions

Thirty kilometres down the Trans-Canada, the Canmore Nordic Centre is gearing up to host an International Paralympic Committee World Cup event in December. This follows a trend of hosting both able-bodied and Paralympic World Cup cross-country ski races every two or three years.

Constructed in 1985, the Canmore Nordic Centre was purpose-built for the 1988 Games. Amidst falling interest from cities for Olympic bids – three of the five candidates for the 2024 games withdrew citing financial concerns – the IOC has started to encourage the re-use of existing infrastructure.

With the Nordic Centre hosting world-class events and the Olympic Oval still known as “the fastest ice on Earth,” Calgary’s legacy venues position themselves in line with the IOC’s new attitude. However, as Winsport spokesman Dale Oviatt will tell you, there’s still much work ahead.

ovaleditBuilt in 1985 in preparation for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Olympic Oval features a full-sized running track and two hockey rinks within the speed skating track. Photo by Patrick Gibson

“We do need about $20 million in upgrades to the bobsleigh track,” says Oviatt. The 14-turn, 1,475-metre track continues to host World Cup events every four to five years. The renovations – half of which have been pledged by the province – would go towards both a new refrigeration process and changing one or two turns, but Oviatt adds, “it's still a great venue for World Cups.”

Ironically, the best asset at Winsport’s Canada Olympic Park may be in sports that weren’t even featured in 1988. New events over the past three decades include freestyle moguls, halfpipe and slopestyle competitions, sports that Winsport has already created a training environment for.

“We've got a halfpipe here, we've got one of the best moguls courses in North America, there's a lot of options here at Winsport," says Oviatt. The halfpipe, matching Sochi 2014’s at an enormous 22 feet high and 600 feet long, attracts the likes of multi-gold-medal-winning snowboarder Shaun White and the Canadian national snowboard team for weeks at a time.

While an iconic part of Calgary’s skyline, Oviatt adds that the 90-metre ski jump tower has been obsolete since shortly after the 1988 Games. Improvements in equipment and technique have lead athletes to out-jump the outrun. “There would have to be a little bit more studies involved as to what does happen with ski jumping as a sport and where that's held if it's held here or somewhere else.”

finishEDITThe finish of Canada Olympic Park’s sliding track, made famous by both the Jamaican Bobsled Team in 1988 and their “Cool Runnings” Hollywood counterparts. Photo by Patrick Gibson

The biggest piece of the puzzle

Perhaps the greatest infrastructure uncertainty is the crown jewel of any Winter Olympics: the large ice arena. As the Saddledome becomes the second-oldest house in the NHL this fall, negotiations over the $890 million, Flames-driven CalgaryNEXT project appear to be at a standstill.

CBEC general manager Brian Hahn says that interest in a bid will have to be independent of a decision on CalgaryNEXT.

“A 60 day event does not justify building an arena,” says Hahn. He likens the scenario to the development of the Saddledome, completed five years before the 1988 Games. “The Saddledome got built because the Atlanta Flames moved and became the Calgary Flames. The fact that the Saddledome was built afforded the 1988 group an option that they were able to use.”

arenasEDITThe Stampede Corral (built for $1.25 million in 1950) and Scotiabank Saddledome (built for $95 million in 1983) face each other across Olympic Way SE. “I think it’s fair to say that we're looking at the Corral and where it is in it's lifecycle and what the Stampede might have in its plans,” says Brian Hahn, Calgary Bid and Exploration Committee general manager . Photo by Patrick Gibson

Hahn stresses the CBEC’s need to consider all options. “We will look at it with the prospect of that happening, and the prospect of that not happening,” he says. "The overarching statement here is we're not looking at how Calgary would fit into the Olympics, we're looking at how the Olympics could fit into Calgary and Calgary's vision for itself.”

Hahn acknowledges there’s always a chance the time isn’t right, but he insists the CBEC’s findings will still hold value in Calgary’s decisions about its sporting legacy. He adds that even if Calgarians, “don't think we should go for an Olympic bid, those decisions around the lifecycles of those assets remain."

"The overarching statement here is we're not looking at how Calgary would fit into the Olympics, we're looking at how the Olympics could fit into Calgary and Calgary's vision for itself.” -Brian Hahn

Oviatt remains optimistic. “These venues have stood the test of time. A lot of other host cities have held the Games, and before you know it they're boarding up their venues or shutting them down. It really is a testament to what we did as Calgarians in '88 and that we've still got these going,” he says.

Oviatt and Hahn encourage Calgarians to be a part of the decision-making process. The CBEC’s official website, shouldcalgarybid.com, features a questionnaire where people can leave their input on the 2026 Winter Olympics.

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The editor responsible for this article is Jennifer Dorozio,

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