All around me at the opening ceremonies 60,000 people had caught the lump-in-the-throat Olympic spirit. I had, too, but in a different way. As a Calgarian, but also as a newspaperman who had covered preparations for these Winter Games for the Calgary Herald, I couldn't rid myself of the thought that kept pounding in my head: It was almost over.
Six-plus years is a long time to cover one story. Undeniably, the Olympics are mesmerizing—but they can also be, I was to learn, sad.
I had been in the posh West German spa of Baden-Baden on Sept. 30, 1981, when Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, announced that Calgary would host the 1988 Winter Games. Over the ensuing years, as I traipsed around the globe in search of Olympic news, I changed. And I watched Calgary change.
The Olympics was not simply a sports story. It was a grass-roots people story, a story about the 640,000 citizens of Calgary, who, in typically Canadian introspective fashion, used to have a giant inferiority complex. Suddenly, the city had a focus, a mission. Ours was now an Olympic city and no longer a hole-in-the-wall cow town 150 miles north of the Montana border. I felt the city's insecurity diminish as the giant ski jump towers slowly rose on the western outskirts. I watched as Calgarians started walking a little taller, strutting with a newfound pride toward their city at the base of the Canadian Rockies. They became a bunch of show-offs, but in a nice kind of way.
As I delved more deeply into the Olympic story, I became cynical about certain things. The only amateurs left in the Olympic movement are the organizing committees; the Olympics is a controversy waiting to happen; the Olympics is an extravaganza that, every four years, goes looking for a country to foot its bills.
So what? Most Calgarians cared only that the coddled members of the IOC had anointed their city as the snow kingdom of this Olympiad. Initial worries that the Olympic flame would burn them, rather than warm them, were understandable; Canada's only previous Olympic experience was the billion-dollar fiasco of Montreal's 1976 Summer Games. Those were the Games that Mayor Jean Drapeau proclaimed could no more produce a deficit than a man could have a baby. The Olympics then spawned a brood for which the citizens of Montreal are still paying.
It helped Calgary that Ralph Klein, a rabble-rousing ex-television reporter, is the mayor. In 1982 Klein warned the business-minded members of the Calgary Olympic organizing committee that he wouldn't stand for an old-boy, country-club approach to the Games. He wanted a financial success, yes, but also a party that Calgarians could share with the rest of the world. He got both—the most commercial, television-oriented Olympics ever, and a party that makes the city's annual midsummer bacchanal, the Calgary Stampede, resemble a prayer meeting.
As the XV Winter Games entered their final week, the party was unfolding exactly as predicted. Gale force gusts had wreaked havoc with the schedule, but locals knew long ago that Calgary is Canada's version of the Windy City. The athletes had finally taken center stage, replacing endless stories about construction, finances, accommodations and ticket wrangles. Our hearts broke for U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen. The titanic figure skating battle of the Brians—Orser and Boitano—whetted our appetites for the Debi Thomas-Katarina Witt clash to come.
The downtown of Canada's oil capital has traditionally been a morgue after sunset. Not for this fortnight. The Olympics brought life to empty streets much as they had breathed life into a population sent reeling early in this decade when world oil prices collapsed.
Yet the sadness I felt at the start of the Games has stayed with me. These Winter Olympics, though the longest ever, last a scant 16 days. So many years of effort for a meager three weekends of international stardom. So much money for something the world will soon forget, even after the Calgary Games turn out to be the "best ever." Samaranch wants them to be the best ever, and that's what he'll call them on Feb. 28, when they're over.