The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

From the friendly atmosphere to heated competition, the 1988 Winter Games left their mark on Calgary.

Not only did the 1988 venues allow Calgary to host the Games, but they later made Calgary “the centre of winter sport in Canada,” said Calgary architect David Edmunds of GEC Architecture, which designed the Saddledome and the Olympic Oval.

Nowadays, the IOC is big on reusing venues wherever possible.

“Any potential host city that will need to provide new venues required for the Games will have to prove that there’s legacy [for the venues]—or that city’s bid will be penalized,”  Kyle Ripley who is the head of Calgary’s bid team, told city council last month.

So, to justify spending billions of dollars to host the Olympics in 2026,  Calgary will need a plan that benefits the city, citizens and athletes post-Games.

Lessons Learned 

To get a better idea of what a “perfect plan” might look like for 2026, we delved into the history of past Olympics to learn from some of the failures and successes.

1. Montreal: Overdraft

One of the bigger debacles in Olympic infrastructure history was the 1976 Games held in Montreal where the city was slapped with a huge debt totalling $1.5 billion. As reported by the Globe and Mail,“the Big O,” also known as “the Big Owe,” cost at least $1.2 billion and took the city 30 years to pay off.

The stadium’s roof was problematic, requiring constant repairs. And when a $37 million fixed roof was finally installed, it tore the next year due to a heavy snow load. The Guardian dubbed the post-Olympic period “the 40-year hangover” for Montreal.   

Now the stadium is used mainly for events such as trade shows.

2. Vancouver: Growth

Vancouver 2010 was an example of fruitful infrastructure development. Venues still in use include the Whistler Sliding Centre, Whistler Olympic Park, and the Richmond Olympic Oval. The sliding centre  has been used for athletes in training, recruitment camps, as well as events and competitions.

Vancouver faced some challenges as well. Organizers initially promised to transform the Olympic Village into a mixed-use neighbourhood once the athletes vacated the apartments. The City took on a big financial blow after promising 252 social housing units, but ended up going $46-million over-budget. The city ended up dividing housing between social and market rentals, according to a statement from Mayor Gregor Robertson.  

The Village is now thriving, reaching green goals by using solar heating and green roofs. It now offers 1,100 residential units, and also has eateries, bars and retail — giving local businesses space to grow.

3. Rio: Abandonment

The 2016 Games held in Rio were in many ways, a gong show. So much went wrong. The overall estimated cost for infrastructure was around $12 billion.

The Maracanã stadium, which held opening and closing ceremonies, is now dormant and was subject to looting. The stadium closed due to conflicts between stadium operators, the Rio state government and Olympic organizers. Other venues have been closed down and sealed off from public usage.

4. London: Savvy

On a brighter note, one of the finer examples of infrastructure planning is the 2012 London Games. The Athlete’s Village transformed East London, providing 2,000 new homes for almost 8,000 people.

The Olympic Stadium continues to bring in high profile events, such as the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.  

London also utilized temporary buildings, creating a basketball stadium that was removable.  Organizers planned to ship it to Rio for reuse during the 2016 games. Though disassembled in 2013, it was never transported to Rio.

London capitalized on existing architecture, and planned for a future that benefited the city, its people and athletes.

5. Calgary: Durable  

The 1988 Games in Calgary put the city on the map.

“There was an increase in awareness and recognition [of the city] immediately before and after the event,” wrote researchers in the academic journal Planning Perspectives.

 90 metre Ski Jump EDITThe 90-meter ski jump at Canada Olympic Park towers over the cities lower northwest neighbourhoods. Built for the ‘88 Games, needs an estimated $70 million in upgrades. Photo by Peter Brand.

The Olympic Oval became the first Olympic site to host indoor speed skating events. It won four design awards relating to architecture, construction and structural engineering, as reported in the 1988 Olympic Winter Games Official Report. It serves as a hub for Canada’s national speed skating team, as well as the university community and general public.

Then there’s the Scotiabank Saddledome, originally called the Olympic Saddledome. It was initially supposed to be a $60-million project. Fast-tracking construction and structural changes to the building ballooned the cost to $97.7 million, according to the Games’ official report.

88 saddledome blueprintEDITDesign and construction of the Saddledome begun prior to the submission of Calgary’s 1981 Winter Olympics bid. During its construction, the Dome suffered a $16.1-million overrun. Photo by Miguel Ibe.

The Saddledome’s future is complicated. Even the Calgary firm that built the Dome, GEC Architecture, acknowledges the building’s obsolescence.

SaddledomeEDITBuilt for the Calgary Flames in 1983, the Saddledome housed multiple Olympic sports during the ‘88 Games. The International Olympic Committee says it’s still suitable to host another Olympic in eight years, although the price to upgrade it would be $9 million. Photo by Peter Brand.

Calgary also made use of venues outside the city, like Nakiska, which was the alpine skiing site. One of the main obstacles during the planning and designing of Nakiska was the concerns involving piping locations during winter. 

In 1985 cold conditions damaged the pipes, and Nakiska needed further upgrades, which cost $25.3-million.

Nakiska MtAllen Lexi FreehillEDIT
Nakiska also known as Calgary’s Closest Mountain, is on Mount Allen, nestled deep in Kananaskis Country. The hill has 73 runs, six lifts, and is just over an hour west of Calgary. Photo by Lexi Freehill.

In the end, hosting the Olympics helped surrounding communities. Nakiska is all for another Olympic Games in Calgary says Matt Mosteller, spokesperson for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which owns Nakiska.

“Nakiska wouldn't exist if the Calgary Olympics didn't happen,” Mosteller said.“Things were budgeted appropriately and most importantly the facilities that are key to those communities stayed around for future years.”

 Calgary's Infrastructure

After the IOC’s visit to Calgary in late January, Kyle Ripley, the director the city’s Olympic bid team, told city council the IOC has changed the way they view Games venues.

“Any potential host city that will need to provide new venues required for the Games will have to prove that there’s legacy [for the new venues]—or that city’s bid will be penalized. The preference is to use existing facilities, whether those are in the host city or not.”

Olympic Oval 1988 BlueprintEDITThe Olympic Oval was built specifically for the ‘88 Games as a hub for speed skating. Now, it is the official designated training center for the Canadian national speed skating team. An estimated $50-million is needed for upgrades. Photo by Miguel Ibe.

Although Calgary’s infrastructure needs revitalization, the buildings are reusable for the 2026 Olympics. Existing facilities and the cost of upgrades for each one are detailed by the Calgary Olympic Bid Committee as follows:

  • COP ski jumps: $70.73 million.
  • Olympic Oval: $50.24 million.
  • WinSport (half-pipe, moguls, aerials): $42.68 million.
  • Nakiska: $28.6 million.
  • WinSport sliding facilities (mainly used for bobsled, and luge): $19.67 million.
  • Corral Centre: $18.88 million.
  • Saddledome (washrooms, electrical and mechanical upgrades): $9.52 million.

Bobsleigh at C.O.P. EDITThe Bobsleigh track at Canada Olympic Park, now Winsport, is one of the ‘88 Games most-used facilities. The city estimates it needs $19million in upgrades. Photo by Peter Brand.

Potential new infrastructures could include:

  1. A new stadium (for ice sports).
  2. A field house (for curling).
  3. An LRT to the airport.
  4. Athletes Village in the river district.

Corral CentreEDITThe Corral centre, which used to house the Calgary Flames, before the Saddledome was built in 1983, would be the stage for hockey games, in Calgary if it were to host the 2026 Games. An estimated $18million in upgrades would be needed. Photo by Peter Brand.

In a Global News article published in Sept. 2017, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city is also looking at using the new Roger’s Place arena in Edmonton for events like hockey and figure skating. According to Calgary architect Andrew Tankard, of GEC Architecture, the city is one adequate ice-surface short of the IOC’s requirements.

The Canmore Nordic Centre and Olympic Village, Nakiska and Lake Louise are also in consideration as possible venues, and Global News reported the Town of Canmore just approved $200,000 to explore the possibility.

Nakiska SkisandRuns Lexi FreehillEDITSkiers and snowboards visit former Olympic Site Nakiska on Mount Allen on a daily basis on Jan. 24. Nakiska is one of the potential sites included in Calgary’s 2026 Olympic Bid. Photo by Lexi Freehill.

Canmore has proposed revitalization to the Nordic Centre to attract more events before the 2026 Games– improvements were suggested before the bid came out, but may help the park acquire necessary funding for the upgrades if they take part.

According to a Global News article, although no official talks have begun with Whistler and Edmonton, both sites show cautious interest in being involved with Calgary’s bid.

Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi said in a conference call on Jan. 17 that Calgary’s plan of inclusion is “good news.”

“It doesn’t need to be a joint bid, [the host] will remain Calgary but using venues outside of Alberta is completely fine. This is encouraged.”

Dubi goes on to say the reuse of existing venues “will have a positive impact on the operating budget” for the host city.

Key Takeaways 

Plan ahead

If you’re a potential bid city, remember that the Olympic Games is only a two-week event. Building a massive stadium or giant infrastructure means your city will want to get the most it can after everyone goes home.

Don’t create a massive burden

Montreal and Rio De Janeiro left their cities with colossal debt and buildings that failed to live up to expectations.  Montreal’s Big O was used for The Montreal Expos but they moved to Washington D.C. in 2005. The building was primarily used by the Montreal Alouettes, sparingly for playoff games and to host Grey Cups, but the last Grey Cup hosted there was in 2008.

Re-use!

The IOC is suddenly all about returning to cities that have hosted in the past –partly because bid cities are pulling out of the process due to the high costs. Cities have also used temporary facilities to help cut costs.

But that solution is  a double edged sword. If you use temporary buildings, “all you’re doing is hosting a ten day party, and it’s going to cost a billion dollars,” said Calgary architect Andrew Tankard of GEC Architecture.

“The facilities are a part of the legacy–an important part, because you have to have the facilities– but the real legacy of those Games was a whole sport training infrastructure in Calgary,” added Edmunds.

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Editor: Kate Paton | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

This story is part of Hindsight 2026, a joint project between the Sprawl and the Calgary Journal. We’re digging into past Olympics to evaluate whether a 2026 Winter Games in Calgary would help or hinder our city.