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!' "
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.