Calgary’s 1988 Winter Games legacy thriving

The founding fathers of the 1988 Winter Olympics had financial

foresight.

While many recent Olympic host cities build temporary sports

venues or convert permanent ones to other types of facilities,

Calgary’s five are still heavily used for their intended purpose 25

years later.

Canada Olympic Park, Scotiabank Saddledome, Canmore Nordic

Centre, the Olympic Oval and Nakiska Ski Resort continue to serve

all levels of athletes, from recreational to Olympian to pro.

”It has become sort of the best dream we could have had back

then,” said Frank King, the chairman of Calgary’s organizing

committee.

”We all did say, `This is not a 16 day-event that when it’s

over, everyone pulls down the tents and all there is no green grass

next summer where the tent was,”’ King added. ”Everything was to

be permanent. The athletes were to be given ways and means to

develop themselves to be world competitive.”

Calgary won the bid to host the first Winter Olympics in Canada

on the city’s fourth try. Opening Feb. 13 and closing Feb. 28, they

were the first Winter Games to be 16 days instead of 12. The longer

span was key in negotiating what was then a record U.S. television

contract of $309 million, says King, which contributed to Calgary

turning a profit.

The `88 legacy is due in no small part to the endowment funds

given after the closing ceremonies to the Calgary Olympic

Development Association. The organization, rebranded WinSport a few

years ago, remains the caretaker of the funds, which pays for

operation and expansion of much of that legacy.

”We were handed the responsibility to maintain the facilities

in a manner to help the Olympic athletes,” WinSport chief

executive officer Dan O’Neill said.

According to WinSport documents, CODA was given two endowment

funds totaling $66 million to invest. The portfolio reached $185

million in 2007 before nose diving almost 40 percent during the

recession. The portfolio is recovering, according to O’Neill.

There’s rarely a day that goes by without him appreciating the

money King and company put in the bank.

”The people who set this fund up here originally, I can’t say

enough about their foresight,” O’Neill said. ”Every time I talk

to them, I say, `You guys don’t know what you did here.’ They do

know what they did here. Most people don’t know what they did

here.”

What they did was build the road and pave it for Canada to

become one of the world’s winter sport powers. The host team didn’t

do well in 1988 with just a pair of silver medals and three bronze.

But 25 years later, Canada’s goal for the 2014 Winter Olympics in

Sochi, Russia, is to win more medals than any other country.

Canada won the most gold medals with 14 at the 2010 Winter Games

in Vancouver and ranked third in the overall medal count with

26.

Canada earned 24 medals at the 2006 Winter Games. According to a

report commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee,

almost three-quarters of Canada’s medalists in Turin, Italy, were

either from Alberta or trained in the province at facilities

leftover from 1988.

”We had some success in Calgary and we built on that,” Own The

Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said. ”It was

really the seed for our success in winter sport. Without the added

enhancement and investment and upgrading of the winter sport venues

in Calgary and the geographic area around Calgary … we would take

a big step back in our performance, I believe.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee also received endowment funds

from Calgary in 1988 in the amount of $40 million. The COC also

invested that money and uses the interest today to fund

athletes.

”The return on the investment is money we spend every day,

every year for the athletes and it comes from the legacy of the

Calgary Games,” COC president Marcel Aubut said. ”We owe a lot to

the Calgary Games – a lot.”

WinSport operates Canada Olympic Park, where the sliding, ski

jump and demonstration freestyle ski events were held in 1988. The

ski jumps are an element of the legacy that did not stand the test

of time. The large tower that is a fixture in the city’s western

skyline has been obsolete for over a decade. WinSport continues to

invest in the smaller jumps, where the Canadian team trains.

Numerous changes and additions have turned Canada Olympic Park

into training hub for multiple sports, but the most significant

expansion to date is the construction of a $204-million Winter

Sport Institute. The facility has opened in phases, starting with

three NHL-sized rinks followed by an international-sized arena and

office tower housing Hockey Canada, Alpine Canada and the National

Sport School. The third and final phase scheduled to be completed

in April is an indoor, dryland training center.

It will be a complex similar to the Olympic Training Center in

Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Australian Institute of Sport in

Canberra.

”In our best dreams, we did not anticipate how good it has

gotten as we speak today,” King said of the institute.

The endowment funds are not paying for the Winter Sport

Institute. The federal and provincial governments and the City of

Calgary are combining to contribute about $130 million toward the

project.

WinSport funds its share via other means, including the sale of

real estate on the south side of Canada Olympic Park. But the

institute blends with the existing legacies from 1988, which cost

millions to maintain and upgrade to current standards. WinSport

pays the majority of the annual operating budget of the Oval at the

University of Calgary, and footed the $9.7-million bill for a new

roof completed last year.

Of the five 1988 venues, the Saddledome’s days may be numbered.

With Edmonton planning to build a new arena for its NHL team, the

speculation is Calgary won’t be far behind.

”The facilities that we were handed, and you look at anywhere

in the world, even including Whistler, there is nothing that

remains as functional as this,” O’Neill said. ”When you hand the

baton off to someone else, they’re responsible for making it better

in whatever way. I think we’ve been fortunate enough here in

Calgary, that each time that baton has been handed to someone else,

they made a little bit of an improvement on what the person did

before.

”We’ve been able to do that over 25 years and I think that’s an

incredible feat.”