Calgary's 1988 Winter Games legacy thriving because of rainy-day dollars
CALGARY - The founding fathers of the 1988 Winter Olympics had financial foresight.
While Olympic host cities of today build temporary sports venues or convert permanent ones to other types of facilities, Calgary's five are still heavily used for their intended purpose a quarter-century 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," says 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 is no green grass next summer where the tent was.' 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 organziation, 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 says.
According to WinSport documents, CODA was given two endowment funds totalling $66 million to invest. The portfolio reached $185 million in 2007 before nose diving almost 40 per cent 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 says.
"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.
Twenty-five years later, Canada's target at 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 medallists in Turin, Italy, were either from Alberta or trained in the province at facilities left over from 1988.
"We had some success in Calgary and we built on that," says Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger. "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 says. "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 46,450-square-metre 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 centre.
It will be a complex similar to the Olympic Training Centre 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 says of the institute. "We don't take credit for that except that if we hadn't done what we did, it wouldn't be happening today because COP would just be a little junior ski hill for kids less than 10 years old."
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 towards 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 of dollars 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.
When the endowment fund's investments plummeted, WinSport could barely afford to keep ice in the Oval for the speedskating team.
The organization and the University of Calgary earned the federal government's permission to draw on the principal of the endowment funds to pay for the Oval's future operations.
It was a drain of almost $7 million during the leanest period, but that number is now "almost zero," O'Neill says. Rent and user fees from the new institute provides a source of revenue for WinSport, he says.
Another caretaker of the '88 legacy is the provincial government.
Alberta paid for the Canmore Nordic Centre and spent $25.6 million on upgrades there between 2004 and 2008.
The provincial government also paid for almost all of the construction costs at Nakiska Ski Resort, now owned and operated by a private company.
The province and federal governments paid for the construction of the Saddledome in 1983 after Calgary won the '88 bid. The City of Calgary leases it to the NHL's Calgary Flames.
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.
But Calgary has been able to maintain and nurture its Olympic legacy because of the forward thinkers who brought Canada its first Winter Games.
"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 says.
"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."