The Olympics should be the best big party any of us has ever been to. If it's not, we may have missed the point.
MAYOR OF CALGARY
Calgary, the site of the XV Winter Olympics, is a purring metropolis with the soul of a singing cowboy, the brain of an oil lawyer, the nerves of a land speculator and the heart of a frontier Samaritan. It's a boom-and-bust town barely more than 100 years old, still not completely uncrated, as they say, and it is replete with sentimental ideas, big risks, high hopes, great expectations, cowboy bars, street sex, ersatz English pubs, strippers at businessmen's lunches and a lot of brash new buildings—some terrific (the Municipal Building) and some very tacky (the Saddledome).
Everywhere there is boosterism, positivism, optimism and howdy-partner, hail-fellow stuff, and this prevails even though Calgarians have been the victims of some bloodcurdling business reversals in the last few years. The bad times included fallout from an early-1980s worldwide recession that ended a real estate boom during which a square foot of office space in downtown Calgary became more valuable than a square foot in midtown Manhattan. That caused a devastating loss of jobs, leading to a local unemployment rate of almost 15%. This, in turn, was followed by a precipitous 71% free-fall in petroleum prices from 1984 to '86.
Times have been so cataclysmic in Calgary that Bobby Lamond, a local oil man, says. "It was like we'd been caught in a nuclear meltdown and we all came running out glowing bright red, but celebrating, 'We made it! We're alive!' "
January 27, 1988
There's still something of an eerie afterglow around town from the oil price decline, but Calgary is bent on celebrating its survival rather than mourning its losses. And. because of this, a carnival atmosphere is going to be the operative environment for the Winter Games, to be held from Feb. 13 to 28. We're not talking about a nice little exhibition of folk dancing followed by zither recitals amid some street stalls selling native nectars. No. we're talking about a stampeding block party driven by equal parts foot-stomping optimism, guitar-strumming gratitude and Stetson-throwing enthusiasm.
Calgary's ultrapopular mayor symbolizes the town's unbuttoned credo of Having a Good Time at All Times. Ralph Klein, 45, is a smart, fun-loving former city hall reporter for a local TV station who won 93% of the vote during his third straight election victory in October '86. He likes nothing better than to hold court in the noisy basement bar of the St. Louis Hotel, where railroad men, ranchers, local cops, long-distance truck drivers and "three-piecers" from the oil company executive suites mix it up to the accompaniment of Western music and fried chicken 'n' chips served in paper cartons.
Klein's view of the Calgary Games, as seen from a table in the St. Louis, is typically straightforward. "This shouldn't be some big. grim operation like running World War III." says the mayor. "This should be an impromptu festival with the cabarets all open and jugs of beer all around. These Olympics should be more than a sporting success. They should be a party. No one in the world is better at big parties than the citizens of Calgary."
Calgarians are indeed seasoned pros when it comes to hospitality. Ever since 1912 they've put on—and put up with—the Stampede, an event that falls somewhere between the running of the bulls at Pamplona and the Texas state fair. About 100.000 people show up in Calgary for the 10-day blowout. There are horse races, chuckwagon races, pig races, professional wrestling, a rodeo, bingo, a sheep show, a swine show, an auctioneers' tournament, a blackjack tournament, a blacksmiths' tournament, parades of all kinds and free flapjacks served every morning from chuckwagons parked on downtown street corners.
This is not everyone's idea of a good time, however. Thousands of Calgarians schedule their vacations so that they leave town the moment the Stampede begins and stay away until the last steer has been wrestled to the ground. But thousands of other perfectly respectable citizens change from suits to boots and cowboy hats and Stampede until they drop. It's a wild, woolly, wet time in which Calgary does its best to act like the hired man on Saturday night. Ray Thompson, manager of the lush Palliser Hotel, sums it up this way: "You spend millions to make your hotel luxurious all year, except during the Stampede. Then you spend $50,000 to make it look like a barn."
The 1988 Winter Olympics won't end up looking as if it were held in a barn, but the horsey aura of the Stampede will be everywhere. The 9.400 local Olympic volunteers will be decked out in white cowboy hats, those flapjack breakfasts will be served in the streets, and a full-fledged rodeo will be performed as part of the Olympic Arts Festival because International Olympic Committee rules forbid the host city from staging any sporting events not officially authorized for the Games.
A lot of people in Calgary, mostly newcomers who rushed out from Canada's effete eastern provinces to cash in on the city's various booms, wish that Calgary could erase its image as a cow town. But even conservative citizens—like Frank King, the smooth-talking oil man who is the $150,000-a-year president of Olympiques Calgary Olympics (OCO), the local organizing committee for the Games—kind of like its reputation. Says King, "In some quarters there is a certain local paranoia over our cowboy image, but many of us are proud of it."
The pragmatic Mayor Klein says. "There's a propensity to portray Calgary as a cow town because that's what it is. Besides that, it costs a hell of a lot for a city to create a new image. New York spent millions to get people to think of it as the Big Apple."
No one is ever going to mistake Calgary for the Big Apple, but it isn't fair to pass the place off as just another Horse Apple, either. For one thing, few towns look less like a cow town than Calgary. Oh, there are some Western touches, notably the silly, swaybacked Saddledome, the 128-acre Stampede park and some high-spirited cowboy bars where sweaty, big-shouldered guys stomp around doing what is known locally as "black armpit" dancing. But the general look of Calgary is so sleek and urban that the film Superman II was shot there because the city's skyline was considered a perfect stand-in for the comic-strip city of Metropolis.
Calgary is also wealthy, confident and cosmopolitan, the unchallenged energy capital of Canada, with a financial community whose clout is second only to that of Toronto's. The population is 640,000—greater than that of Boston or New Orleans—which makes Calgary the second-largest city ever to hold the Winter Games (Sapporo, Japan, site of the 1972 Olympics, then had a population of 1.03 million). It's possible that a Calgarian could live in some parts of town and never even notice the Games. The urban sprawl beyond the center city is as endless and ugly a welter of waterbed outlets and used car lots as you will find anywhere on Long Island or in Orange County.
For all the talk about cows and horses, Calgary is an oil town, and that is both its blessing and its bane. Ian Seph, head of the natural resources committee for the chamber of commerce, says bluntly. "If there was no oil and gas industry, there would be no Calgary." Of course, that's not quite true. After all, there was a Calgary—Fort Calgary—in 1874, when one good buffalo skin may have been worth more than all the oil in Canada. Fort Calgary consisted of the fort itself and a ramshackle structure of barricades and shanties that served as temporary headquarters for a sort of SWAT team of North West Mounted Police. The Mounties had been sent into the area to keep peace between local fur traders and drunken Indians, many of whom were purchasing their whiskey in a raunchy little boomtown some 200 miles away called Fort Whoop-up.
As the result of the police presence and its chilling effect on the illicit liquor trade, Fort Whoop-up quickly faded, while Fort Calgary thrived. Then the railroad came through in 1883. followed by land booms, huge cattle spreads and horse ranches (the area became famous for big, powerful horses used by various armies in the Boer War and World War I), grain farming and meat packing. It was a party town even back then, full of brothels, bathhouses and billiard halls, and the place was crawling with rambunctious new rags-to-riches millionaires. Most of them were louts, rich or poor, but for some, big money meant putting on veddy civilized airs—including high tea, polo and fox hunting, with the hard-to-find fox replaced by the coyote.
In 1914 oil and natural gas were discovered in Turner Valley, about 25 miles south of town, and nothing has been the same since. Jack Peach, 74, a local historian-journalist, says. "There were ups and downs, ups and downs after that. Natural gas—they called it naphtha—was a mystery to them. But once the first oil was found, wildcatters came up in droves from the States. Those first wildcatters had an incredible lack of couth and gave the States a bad name. That was in the '20s and '30s. The bottom fell out of everything in the Depression.
"Then in the late '40s big gushers came in. and more Americans came up. These were a better breed—Oklahoma, LSU and Texas graduates, experts, executives. There were lots of British, too, and other sophisticated foreigners who had opened up the oil fields of Iran, Iraq and Romania. They came to Calgary and demanded plush stuff—elegant clubs, good restaurants. The field people, the seismic boys, the roughnecks were concentrated in Edmonton, while the three-piecers, the administrative types, settled in Calgary. That's why Edmonton is blue-collar and Calgary is white-collar."
Whatever color the collar, good times rolled throughout the 1960s. Then in the '70s a worldwide shortage of oil sent prices into the stratosphere. Once again, the town was overrun with new tycoons. Gold shower faucets, multi-car garages and private car washes were all the rage. People flooded into Calgary from the east, doubling the population in just over one decade. The migration set off a massive construction boom around the city; $2.5 billion worth of building permits were issued in '81 alone. People joked that Calgary's official bird should be the building crane.
Then, without warning, Calgary was staggered by a brutal combination of economic rabbit punches: a recession, a new Canadian energy policy that maintained the price of western oil below the world price, and rising interest rates. As Lamond puts it, "We had been obscenely confident, but we weren't exactly overwhelmed with financial talent. People had spent like there was no tomorrow—and suddenly there wasn't."
The city reeled. The population actually declined. By 1984, 22% of the city's office space was vacant. Unfinished skyscrapers were abandoned in midfloor. Some Calgarians thought it was not an entirely bad thing. OCO president King said in 1984. "Calgary has come down from its period of euphoric madness and over-optimism. Now it's living a normal life."
Then, in 1985, just as Calgarians began to crawl out of the rubble, the international price of oil collapsed, plunging from an '84 high of $31 per barrel to less than $10 in the spring of '86. A sense of catastrophe gripped the city. Thousands of workers were laid off. People reneged on their mortgages, slipping out of town in the middle of the night and leaving their houses to the bank. In April '86 when the city fire department announced that it had 24 openings, 3,000 people applied for the $24,900-a-year positions. One job-seeker said, "If I get it, it will be like winning a lottery."
Calgary hit bottom—at least this time around—in early 1986, and now, in spite of another recent drop which has oil prices hovering between $15 and $20, conditions are improving and the city bird has reappeared. There's a sense of self-congratulation and camaraderie among the survivors. "We went through a terrible crisis together." says Ralph Klein, "and we found out a lot about ourselves. We found this is a friendly, generous, resilient place. Every community cause and campaign exceeded its goals during the depression. The solid people stayed, the flippers moved away. We're better off after the bust than we were during the boom."
The Winter Olympics played an important role in stiffening Calgary's spine in those dark days. First of all, the $400 million in construction and upgrading of facilities for the Games was a boon; official statistics indicate that Olympic building contributed 14,000 person-years of employment. Beyond that, the Games gave the besieged citizens a promise of a festival in the future, no matter how funereal the present. Donald Jacques, the general manager of the Stampede, said, "The Olympics brightened our outlook when companies were shutting down and people were losing their homes. Houston didn't have that when it was going broke. Dallas didn't either. Even in the worst of times, we never worried whether the Games would actually come off. We knew they'd pay for themselves, come hell or damnation in the oil business."
The Calgary Games will not only pay for themselves, they will make a hefty profit. Canadians elsewhere find this hard to believe. The Montreal Games of 1976, Canada's only other Olympic experience, left a $1 billion debt that's still nowhere near paid off. The idea of turning a profit on an Olympics is, to many Canadians, a bizarre notion. Indeed, in '81, when Calgary spent a then record $3.1 million to win in its fourth bid for a Winter Games, the chances of breaking even in '88 seemed pretty poor. When the first big business bust hit Calgary in '82, it seemed even less likely. But then came Peter Ueberroth and his brilliant merchandising of the '84 Los Angeles Games. He put everything but the Olympic flame up for sale to corporate marketing sharks, and this changed the style and substance of all Games—including Calgary's—forevermore.
Frank King has been called the Man Who Would Be Ueberroth because he's known to admire Ueberroth almost to the point of worship. After seeing the money miracles produced by the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, King copied its high-octane marketing program. The results have exceeded his wildest dreams. In 1981, OCO's initial estimate of marketing and merchandising revenue was a puny $30 million. Post Ueberroth, it got $87 million.
Another unexpected windfall came in the form of American TV rights. OCO had originally guessed that no U.S. network would offer more than $60 million for the Games. Wrong: ABC went crazy in the winter of '84—just before its ratings fiasco at the Sarajevo Games—and bid $309 million, an amount that will guarantee the network a hefty loss (see page 8), but will put OCO comfortably into the black.
With all this unexpected revenue, plus heavy contributions from national ($200 million), provincial ($130 million) and city ($66 million) governments, OCO bobbed happily in a sea of money while the economy of Calgary was sinking like a stone. All of the Olympic facilities were completed months ago, amazingly with no labor trouble and almost no environmental protest. So far the only threat of disruption during the Games has come from the Lubicon Indian group, which may put up a picket line to call attention to a 47-year-old gripe it has with the Canadian government over land and oil rights.
One other note of discord was cleared up about a year ago. It concerned the elitist stranglehold King's minions had kept on virtually all Olympic operations. Mayor Klein, a born populist, had raised hell with OCO about not involving the people of Calgary in their own Olympics, and in December 1986, the Calgary Herald editorialized: "OCO has done little to dissuade Calgarians of the notion that it is a closed club of bumblers who think they can operate under different rules from the rest of society."
Soon after, King & Co. opened their meetings to the public, and since then things have been running so smoothly that some observers think a serious case of complacency could set in. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch told King recently. "I think that your biggest problem is that you don't have any problems."
Actually, Calgary's biggest problem is that it can't do anything about its biggest problem. That's the celebrated chinook wind. Local legend has it that the chinook is the warm breath of a Sarcee Indian maiden who became lost many years ago in the Canadian Rockies. In fact the chinook is not exclusively a Sarcee or Canadian or North American phenomenon. It occurs globally and is known by many names—the foehn of the Swiss Alps, the schneefresser (snow-eater) of the Alps, the Santa Ana winds of Southern California.
All these winds begin as warm, moisture-soaked weather systems at the windward foot of a mountain range. Pushed by a low pressure system, the winds move up the mountainsides, getting about five degrees colder for every 1,000 feet of climb, until they become saturated with moisture that eventually falls as rain or snow. Once the winds have crossed the highest peaks, they hug the other side of the mountains, growing warmer as they descend into the valley on the lee side of the range. By now these systems have been wrung dry of moisture. When they reach the lowland, the chinook and its cousins melt anything cold—including snow—and bring springlike weather even in the deepest days of winter.
To defend the Games against the assault of a chinook thaw, OCO has put the speed skating rink indoors and has equipped its bobsled and luge course with 62 miles of refrigeration pipes that give the run more deep-freeze power than all of the NHL rinks in Canada combined. As for the Alpine events at Nakiska and the Nordic events at Cranmore, both an hour's drive from the city, there are massive networks of snow-making equipment, and lest the weather be too warm for the snowmakers to work, OCO began stockpiling snow along the banks of the slopes in the first week of October. It will be spread across the race courses if the lost maiden's breath suddenly turns hot.
Of course, no meteorologist worth his galoshes will make a long-range guess as to what exactly to expect during Olympic days, but a special Canadian edition of The Old Farmers Alamanac fearlessly predicts: "Feb. 1-8 Cold, snow. 9-11 Sunny, then cold. 12-17 Mild, alternate sun & flurries. 18-23 Severe cold wave, snow then clearing. 24-28 Clear & mild, light snow east. 29 Cold, snow." Whew!
One thing about Calgary weather Olympic visitors had best keep in mind: It is subject to extremes. There is an unfunny local joke about the cowboy who rode his horse into Calgary after a huge snowfall and tied the animal to a post while he went into a bar for a drink. Two hours later he came out and found that a chinook had blown in and melted every flake of snow, and that his horse was now hanging from a church steeple, strangled by its reins.
Steve Rothfels, a meteorologist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Calgary, says, "Southwestern Alberta has the most extreme weather changes on earth. Our chinook comes from the Pacific Ocean off Vancouver and crosses two mountain ranges before it gets here. Thus it is warmer and drier than other similar systems. Besides that, we have the Arctic weather lurking very close to us to the north, ready to zap us with a lot colder temperatures and worse storms than other regions get. The fluctuating extremes between these two weather systems give us some gigantic temperature changes in no time at all." Rothfels then cited Calgary's record for one-day extremes set on Dec. 20, 1933, when the temperature, which was 3° F at 7 p.m., rose to 37° at 8:30 p.m. and to 43° at midnight, and then free-fell to 5° at 2 a.m.
But presumably the weather, good or bad, won't put a damper on the party that both OCO and Calgary are doing their best to produce. The city prevailed upon the Alberta legislature to pass a special law allowing the town's 750 bars and cabarets to extend their hours and to serve customers on Sunday during the Games. Prostitution is legal in Canada, though overt solicitation is not. So, unlike the uptight city of Moscow, which hustled its hustlers out of town during the 1980 Summer Olympics, Calgary will allow business as usual.
Thus, the escorts section of the classified ads in the tabloid Calgary Sun will continue to carry its usual full pages of services offered by the likes of "RUSTI, 5'9", all legs & naturally red" or "MISTY! Those LIPS! Those EYES! SURPRIZE!" And the streetwalkers, the sex shops, the adult bookstores, the strip bars—many of which operate morning, noon and night—will offer customers their usual version of a latter-day Fort Whoop-up.
Of a more wholesome nature, OCO will have an on-alert team of entertainers, 850 strong, made up of fiddlers, rope-trick artists, jugglers, singers and others, all ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice to any venue where boredom threatens. There will also be laser shows and fireworks every evening after the medal ceremonies, which will be held in the downtown Olympic Plaza.
If anyone comes to Calgary for these Winter Games and doesn't have fun, maybe, as the mayor says, he will have missed the point.