It is 4:40 on a Wednesday afternoon Calgary's round and charismatic mayor. Ralph Klein, sits in his office sipping a second glass of Scotch. "We know it's going to be one big party," he says of the 1988 Winter Olympics. "The only thing that hasn't been defined is the quality of the party."
Klein, you must understand, is no fish out of water on the topic of parties. Hizzoner can discuss the quality of big-time shindigs the way a Burpee salesman can talk about the fine points of bean sprouts. Each July, Calgary hosts its infamous Stampede—10 days of civic debauchery interrupted by the occasional barrel race—which attracts roughly the same number of spectators a day (100,000) as are expected for the Olympics The Stampede is by all accounts, a quality party, a frontier hoedown first and a rodeo second a 231-hour blowout for man and livestock alike Klein for one doesn't see why the '88 Winter Games should be any different. "This isn't World War III we're planning for," he says. "We'll try to do some of the same things for the Olympics that we do for the Stampede. Outdoor bonfires and street dances. People will be encouraged to dress western. We'll have ice sculptures. The theme is going to be cat, drink and be merry. And maybe even meet Mary, if you want to. Nobody knows how to throw a party like Calgarians."
A bacchanalian Olympics. And some damn good sport, to boot. With less than a year to go before athletes from 52 countries and five continents start descending on Calgary, the XV Winter Olympics are not exactly shaping up as the Austerity Games. Calgary isn't quaint (the city sprawls over 193 square miles), it isn't Old World (the skyline is a numbing array of steel and glass) and it certainly isn't sophisticated (Calgarians by the thousands dress in garish red and white whenever their beloved NHL Flames battle the archrival Edmonton Oilers). It isn't even in the mountains, which stand 65 miles away and cannot be seen from the downtown area unless you take the elevator to the top of Calgary Tower a structure that next Feb 13 will be transformed into a 646-foot Olympic torch when a 20-foot flame is lighted at its crest And it definitely isn't a winter wonderland: There has been so little snow in Calgary this winter that when a pre-Olympic festival was held last month ice cut from glaciers and scraped from local rinks had to be brought in so festival organizers could build the obligatory ice sculptures.
But Calgary is western. Superlatives such as "tallest," "richest" and "first" are very much in vogue in this overgrown cowtown, which, for all its shortcomings, is infused with that can-do frontier spirit with which the creators of the original Games must have been blessed. Hey, if it ain't right, we can make it right.
March 9, 1987
Which, but for a single, glaring exception, the organizers of the Calgary Games seem to have done. The horizon is unclouded with threats of any sort of boycott. The facilities, ranging from first-rate to state-of-the-art, are either finished and operational, or on schedule and on budget. The mood in town, however, is a little ornery.
More than a little, in fact. Downright ornery, a state of mind that has descended on this city over a little matter of tickets. There aren't enough of them. And no one is being very gracious about it, either. Calgary has a population of 640,000, and the local citizenry wants tickets by the feed bag-full. Not just any tickets, mind you. They want tickets to the glamour events: the opening ceremonies, medal-round hockey games and speed and figure skating competitions. They want to go to the 43 events that have already been sold out, never mind that some 800,000 tickets remain to a variety of competitions, including women's downhill, the biathlon and the ever-thrilling luge. They want tickets because they have been misled about their availability by, among others. Frank King, who as chairman of OCO '88 (the organizing committee whose acronym stands for Olympiques Calgary Olympics, of course of!) is the Peter Ueberroth of the XV Winter Games. Only 10% of the tickets would go to Olympic "insiders," Calgarians had been told, when in fact as much as 50% of the tickets to premier events went to sponsors, officials and governmental pooh-bahs.
The financing of the Games is another source of public concern. OCO '88 is counting on its $226 million share of ABC's $309 million in rights fees; another $57 million from sponsors, suppliers and licensers; $27 million from ticket sales; $18 million from Canadian, European. Asian and Soviet bloc broadcast rights: $39 million from the federal and city governments: and $40 million from interest and other sources. Various government bodies are providing another $228 million worth of services and facilities. All this adds up to $635 million, more than the $413 million it cost to put on the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which involved four to six times as many people, and nearly four times the $172 million price tag of the '80 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. The Calgary Games are so flush with revenues that officials expect a surplus of at least $48 million to add to $75 million in trusts they've earmarked to go to the Canadian Olympic Association and to the Calgary Olympic Development Association, which will operate Calgary's facilities as training sites after the '88 Games are history.
Still, Calgarians are suspicious. This is Canada, after all, whose only previous foray into hosting an Olympics—the '76 Summer Games in Montreal—left a monumental legacy of debt. And Canadians, by nature, expect to fall flat on their faces in almost any international forum. Cursed by an inferiority complex the size of the Yukon, the result of a century of living in the shadow of Big Brother to the south, the good-natured Canadians have a tendency to believe that somehow, somewhere, someway, their government—or in this case, OCO '88—is going to screw up. "Everytime I go to the States I'm amazed by their attitude of, 'Hey, no problem, we can do it,' even if they've never done it before," says one Calgarian. "Canadians are the opposite. When things seem to be going great, that's when we look hardest for the cloud on the horizon. We've got a big horizon up here. Usually you can find one."
The truth is. Canadians are pretty good at staging mega-events. Last summer's World's Fair in Vancouver was wildly popular, as was its predecessor by 20 years. Montreal's Expo '67. And while the Montreal Games were a financial Armageddon, they were also the Games that put the Olympic movement back on track after the human tragedy at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Montreal Games were first-rate, but it was to Los Angeles that the organizers of OCO '88 looked for their role model.
"We learned from the L.A. Olympics that sport should rely on television, private donors and corporate sponsors," says the 50-year-old King, who is on leave as chairman of Amerigo International, a Calgary-based company specializing in enhanced oil recovery. "The Olympics can be run as a business and still have a festival atmosphere. We've exceeded even L.A. revenues for the broadcast rights to the Games, and now our job is to give value for those rights—not so much for this Olympiad as for future ones."
ABC will almost certainly lose money on its telecast of the Calgary Games. Its $309 million pact was signed in January 1984, at the peak of the sports television boom, when advertisers were falling all over themselves to pay record-setting amounts to have their products associated with athletes. Since then that market has weakened significantly. But OCO '88 has done everything in its power to see that ABC gets the most for its money. It has lengthened the duration of the Winter Games from 12 days to 16, so that it now spans three weekends, and 50% of its events have been scheduled for evening or weekend prime time The number of events has increased correspondingly from 90-some events at Sarajevo to 128 in Calgary And several of the added competitions are demonstration sports with television appeal—freestyle skiing, short-course speed skating and yahoo Olympic rodeo—which will help fill in ABC's 97 hours of coverage.
OCO '88 has also changed the format of the hockey tournament to better suit TV. Matches will be played every day (in the past hockey has been an every-other-day event) and the number of teams qualifying for the medal round has been increased from four to six, thereby making it easier for the U.S. squad to advance—and TV ratings to go up.
Furthermore, OCO '88 was able to convince the International Ice Hockey Federation—thanks to a reported $1.2 million under-the-table payment—to okay the concept of a prearranged schedule (as opposed to one drawn out of a hat), which will have the U.S. and Canada playing most of their games during prime time. Says King, "We've been able to solve a lot of our problems by throwing money at them."
The most dramatic example of that is the Olympic Oval, a $29.2 million wonder that, when it is finished this spring, will be the world's first fully enclosed 400-meter speed skating arena. (There is another under construction in East Berlin, which is due to be completed in midsummer.) Located on the University of Calgary campus, which will double as an Olympic Village, the Oval extends roughly the length of two football fields. "We knew that warm weather could occasionally present a problem in the winter months," says Dr. Roger Jackson, president of the Canadian Olympic Association and dean of the U of C phys ed faculty. "And we had the money, so we figured. Why not put a roof on it?" The Oval is therefore immune to the warm Chinook winds that can send Calgary temperatures soaring 60°, even 70°, in a matter of hours. It will be kept at 50°, and since skaters won't have to battle wind resistance or sunshine-softened ice speculation is that times will overall be faster than those outdoors.
The opening and closing ceremonies will be held at U of C's McMahon Stadium, one of only a handful of venues (the Stampede Corral, site of some of the hockey and figure skating, is another) not specifically built for the Games. Completed in 1960, McMahon Stadium is undergoing a $15.8 million expansion to increase its capacity to 50,000.
The great majority of hockey and figure skating events will be held in the Olympic Saddledome, the $73 million home of the NHL's Calgary Flames. The 3½-year-old Saddledome, which has an expandable ice surface to accommodate international play, is so named because its roof—the largest concrete suspended one in the world—is shaped like a saddle. It seats 17,000—about twice the capacity of Lake Placid's hockey arena, which sometimes went half empty during the '80 Olympics—but it is not large enough to accommodate the appetites of hockey-crazed Canadians. All the hockey medal games and figure skating events have already been sold out, prompting the decision in January to add 2,600 seats to the Saddledome's upper reaches, a $1.13 million project that should help put a few noses back in joint among ticketless Calgarians.
The rest of the venues are out of town. The closest of these, Canada Olympic Park, is a 15-minute drive west of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. It's difficult to miss. You tootle along through the foothills and nascent suburbia when suddenly, on your left, silhouetted against the sky, appear the naked twin towers of the 70-meter and 90-meter jumps. They are by far the largest objects around. There is hardly a tree over seven feet tall within a local phone call. And, horribly, they are surrounded by dirt. This has been the warmest winter of the century for Calgary, with more than 80 days of above-average temperatures, and the recently installed snowmaking equipment has, for the most part, been used only at night.
What these ski jumps now lack in aesthetics, however, they make up for in sheer brass. They bully the foothills. They dominate the horizon. The problem with this grandiose exposure is that there is nothing within 30 miles to deflect the wind. And blow she does: Statistics show that on one out of three days at Canada Olympic Park the wind whistles too fiercely for safe jumping. There has been talk of building a huge screen on the windward side of the jumps, but there is as much controversy about the eddies and backwash the windscreens would create as there is about the wind itself. "The fact is, you can handle the wind by having enough days to wait it out," says King. "Every ski jumping hill has the same problem, but one of the advantages of a 16-day Olympics is we have four more days to fight the elements."
Last November, Horst Bulau, Canada's top jumper, caused a stir when he christened the 70-meter jump. After landing smoothly, he shot through the outrun and slid right out of the 50,000-spectator bowl, hurtling airborne off the lip of the counterslope and tumbling 30 feet down a dirt embankment. "The hill is great," the battered Bulau said afterward. "Unfortunately, the counterslope is a little too short."
Officials immediately modified the counterslope, adding more dirt to its upper portion and rounding off its lip. But the modifications were probably unnecessary. No other jumper even came close to skiing through the outrun, prompting speculation that Bulau, who lives in Ottawa, Ont., hadn't tried his best to stop, perhaps with the purpose of discrediting the $6 million Olympic hill, which had supplanted Thunder Bay, Ont., as the top training spot for ski jumpers in Canada.
The bobsled and luge track is a short walk from the ski jumps. Designed by a team of East Germans, the course is laid out like a tuning fork—one prong containing the starting ramps for the men's and women's luge, the other the start of the two-and four-man bobsleds. The track is refrigerated by 48 miles of pipe, and this winter it has needed every inch of them. In January strong winds blew an inch of dust over the track, fouling the ice so badly that a meltdown was required to clean it. The park now sprays the barren slopes surrounding the track with water to keep the dust down.
The most interesting feature of the luge and bobsled run is the 98 photoelectric eyes that have been installed at critical locations throughout the course. As a sled passes, the photocells register its exact position, then feed that information into a central computer: the computer compares the line taken by the sled with the fastest theoretical line of descent. Armed with this information, a driver can adjust his next run accordingly. Don't be too shocked if, next February. Canada takes home its first bobsledding medal since 1964.
The cross-country and biathlon competitions will be held in the town of Canmore, 55 minutes west of Calgary. A mini-Olympic village will be set up in Canmore for 600 athletes and coaches, with lodging provided by 15 outsized trailers (although OCO '88 officials call them modular housing units and visibly cringe at the word "trailer"). Life won't be bad in them. The person-to-bathroom ratio at the Canmore village is 4.6 to 1, better than in some of the dorms at the University of Calgary village, which will house the other 2,000 Olympic athletes and coaches. And Canmore will be equipped with saunas, a swimming pool, a movie theater, a curling rink and a video arcade to amuse the athletes. If, that is, they aren't too exhausted to enjoy them. The Canmore Nordic Centre has a bear of a cross-country course, with hills so steep that speeds of 80 kilometers (48 miles) an hour are estimated on the downhills. "You could find yourself eating a trail here really quick," says Canadian Nordic coach Marty Hall. After skiing in a World Cup race at Canmore in January Sweden's Torgny Mogren, third in the World Cup standings called the 15-kilometer course "the toughest I've competed on," and added "I was tired the whole way." His teammate World Cup leader Gunde Svan, tilted his hand at a crazy angle when describing Canmore: "The hills are like this. Not normal."
The same could be said of Mount Allan, the site of the Alpine skiing events, and easily Calgary's most controversial venue. Nakiska at Mount Allan is the precise name. The site was named for the Games after the Cree word meaning "to meet." As in, "to meet" criticism.
The Nakiska ski area is 54 miles west of Calgary, down a long stretch of highway that never quite makes it to the mountains. Albertans are none too happy with this project, since it cost $19 million of taxpayers' money to build. No private developer would touch it. Mount Allan, a molehill by western standards, gets little snow, necessitating $3.75 million in snow-making equipment, which can cover 80% of the trails. When Marc Hodler, the Swiss president of the Fèdèration Internationale du Ski (FIS), first skied Nakiska in 1985, he moaned. "This mountain is in the foothills!" Later Hodler assessed the men's downhill course—the showcase Olympic event for European athletes—as "borderline" and threatened to move the race elsewhere. Serge Lang, the founder of the World Cup tour, was even more forthright: he called Nakiska's downhill "Mickey Mouse."
The most damning assessment, however, came from Hans Gmoser, affectionately known as the father of North American helicopter skiing, for which the nearby Bugaboo region of the Rockies is renowned. "We won't have to worry about nuclear conflagration if we have the Olympics on Mount Allan," said Gmoser. "The whole world will die laughing."
So what did OCO '88 do in the face of such ridicule? Throw money at it. Since Hodler first expressed his concerns, a team of FIS technical experts headed by Switzerland's Bernhard Russi, an Olympic gold medalist in '72 and silver medalist in '76, has molded Mount Allan like a lump of clay. The problem with the men's downhill had been that it was too steep at the top and too flat in the middle: so for the past two years chain saws and bulldozers have widened the course, added rollers, changed contours and created bumps. The result is a world-class downhill venue. "Unanimously my friends on the inspection team are of the opinion that we are on the way to making Mount Allan one of the top mountains existing today," Hodler gushed after watching a Nor/Am event there in December.
"It'll be the best downhill at an Olympics since '76 at Innsbruck," says Ken Read, one of Canada's top racers at the last two Olympics and an early critic of Mount Allan. "At Lake Placid and Sarajevo, most of the downhillers went away with kind of a bad taste in their mouths because the course dictated the winners," says Read, referring to the gold medals won by Austria's Leonhard Stock and America's Bill Johnson—two racers who had difficulty winning before or since. "You don't want a downhill where the winner is just the guy with the fastest skis. This Mount Allan course is intimidating at the top, and busy all the way down. There's a lot going on up there."
The top is so intimidating—at one point the pitch reaches about 50 degrees—that when officials asked workers to set up safety nets near the wind-whipped summit for this month's World Cup downhill, the workers refused. Too dangerous, they said. As it happens, the starting gate for the race will be lower anyway because of a lack of snow at the top. But you can bet that for the Olympic downhill the skiers will start from the summit if Russi and Hodler have to climb up to set the safety nets in place by themselves.
The women's downhill is also challenging. Canada's top woman racer, Laurie Graham, a World Cup winner this season at Val-D'Isère, describes the Mount Allan course as "the steepest downhill I've ever been on. And it's narrow. It doesn't have real flowing turns. It's a survival type of thing."
No problems are foreseen for the slalom or giant slalom courses, provided it is cold enough to make snow. Which leaves us with the matter of spectators. Bring either your skis or climbing boots if you plan to watch the Alpine events, because Nakiska has only one lift leading specifically to the race courses, and it ends halfway up. That's not unheard of: At Sapporo spectators had to hike two miles to see the downhill. Enough concern has been voiced, however, that OCO '88 will probably hire buses to ferry people halfway up the mountain. Be prepared to come early and stay late. An estimated 15,000 spectators a day are expected at Nakiska.
As for spectator accommodations, the Calgary area's 10,000 to 12,000 hotel rooms have already been gobbled up by the Olympic "family," a notably nonexclusive group. But fear not. "As long as people are flexible, there will be no problem finding a bed," says a spokesperson for the Olympic Housing Bureau, the central reservation service for OCO '88.
The citizens of Calgary are literally opening their doors to the world The system is called Homestay, and it is no more than a bed-and-breakfast plan, minus the breakfast. Rooms in private homes are being let at a fixed rate of $37.50 for a single or double. Each additional head costs $7.50, with a maximum of four people per room. Food does not enter into the bargain, but since Calgary is blessed with some 250 Chinese restaurants alone, eating out shouldn't pose much of a problem. So far, more than 2,000 houses have been lined up for the Homestay program. Additionally, some 1,400 houses are available to rent at rates ranging from 56¬¨¬®¬¨¢ to $1.28 per square foot per week, depending on quality. Organizers reckon that that puts them in pretty good shape for beds. "A lot of those houses came up for rent when people found out they didn't get the tickets they'd sent in for," says an OCO '88 spokesman. "So they decided, 'The hell with it, we'll watch the Games on television,' and booked a trip to Hawaii."
Ah yes, the tickets. The one snafu in an otherwise beautifully orchestrated effort. It was all supposed to be so democratic. All tickets were to go on sale last Sept. 30—no orders postmarked earlier than that date would be accepted—and orders would be processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Maximum 12 tickets to an event, with no limit on the number of events. The committee would, however, consider any request for more than the maximum 12, and in many cases made exceptions.
Not such a bright plan. Some 54,000 orders flooded in the first day, the average order asking 8-10 tickets, and—bango!—the 20 premier events were sold out. So the spectators you will see at the opening ceremonies will be the same ones watching the Canadians play the Soviets in hockey and the same ones cheering for Gaetan Boucher of Canada in the speed skating oval.
That was bad enough. Then word got out that the ticket forms distributed in the U.S. apparently had been tampered with. Payment, according to the doctored forms, was required in U.S. dollars. At the time, the American dollar was worth 38% more than its Canadian counterpart, so the man who cashed the U.S. checks stood to make a tidy profit. On Oct. 30, the OCO '88 ticket manager, Jim McGregor, was fired and charged with two counts of theft, two of fraud and one of mischief. He turned out to be 99% owner of an outfit called World Tickets Inc., which allegedly represented itself as the Winter Olympic ticket broker to the U.S. Authorities say that when they searched World Tickets Inc.'s post office box in Calgary, they found 600 orders totaling more than $1 million in ticket requests, all paid for in U.S. funds. McGregor, who has pleaded not guilty, is due to stand trial this month.
The trouble didn't stop there. Soon Calgarians discovered that not 10% but 23% of all tickets—391,000 of the 1.7 million then available—were distributed on a priority basis to Olympic insiders. And who were these insiders? Turned out, many were elected officials of government—members of Parliament, Calgary city councilmen and so on. These officials had been given forms to fill out before the Sept. 30 kick-off date and they were allowed to sign up for any number of tickets for themselves and their families. The Calvary Herald, which ran daily stories about the ticket shortage, thereby whipping the public into a frenzy, exacerbated the situation by erroneously claiming in a front-page article that "unlimited free tickets" were offered to 13 city aldermen and three ex-aldermen—a story the Herald never fully retracted. Embarrassed the aldermen turned their tickets back in and demanded a full disclosure of which insiders had received how many tickets and when King implored Calgarians to behave. "Let's not act bush league," he begged. "Let's act like an international city."
Finally, when it was revealed that at least 160 employees of OCO '88 itself had gotten preferential treatment on ticket orders. King hired an auditor to launch a complete review of the situation. Still, Calgarians were ticked off. Clara Gibson, one of dozens whose letters have appeared in the Herald, wrote: "I don't mind telling OCO chairman Frank King that this 'bush league' Calgary taxpayer doesn't mind making a fuss about being unlucky." Gibson then suggested that top Olympic honchos attend bobsled and luge events so as to "free some of the tickets to...major events for the poor beleaguered Calgary taxpayer."
In point of fact, the Games are costing "the poor beleaguered Calgary taxpayer" only four dollars a year in additional taxes, according to Mayor Klein, in return for which the city has benefited from an employment boost of "14,000 person-years of work in the last three years." Calgary, an agricultural center and oil town that has been in a minirecession as a result of tumbling oil prices, has come through far better than most other oil-dependent cities.
"In the 1979-81 boom years, when oil was sky-high, we were doing $2 billion in new construction a year," says Klein. "Then in '82 everything came to a standstill. The Olympics have been a godsend. There's no question the Games will be a success as a sporting event. The facilities are tremendous. The challenge now is to turn this thing around so that Calgary has a good feeling about hosting the Games, that we feel a sense of ownership. A lot of Calgarians are mad now about not getting tickets. They think they should get preference, but there is nothing in the system, nor should there be anything in the system, that says the host citizens should get preference. It's an international event."
That, unfortunately, hasn't really sunk in. The best example of Calgary's provincial mentality occurred when OCO '88 awarded the commission to create the official Olympic sculpture to a husband-and-wife team from Paris, Patrick and Ann Poirier. Demonstrators took to the steps of city hall to protest that the job had not gone to a Canadian artist, and the city council spurned the sculpture, which was to have stood in a downtown plaza where the Olympic medals will be awarded each night. As a result, there will be no Olympic sculpture until after the Games. Then a new contest may be held—only Canadians need apply—and something depicting the XV Winter Olympics may be erected in the plaza.
"We have a $10 million arts budget, and 88 percent of it will go to local artists, only 12 percent to international artists," says King, defending the original decision to commission the French couple. "What would happen if the statue of David was offered as a gift to the people of Calgary? Would they turn it down? What if America had turned down the Statue of Liberty? There is a certain amount of international savoir faire that still has to be cultivated here."
Calgary is, after all, a cowtown. A little rough around the edges, but at the bottom of things, willing and eager to please. By the time Feb. 13, 1988 rolls around, the ill will caused by this ticket business will be forgotten, scalpers will be on hand to tend to the truly needy, and the Olympic hoedown will begin. And one way or another, you can bet that Calgary will have its boots shined bright for the world. Mosey on up if you get a chance. It should be a quality party.