SI Vault
E.M. Swift
March 09, 1987
Undeterred by a mostly snowless winter, Calgary is busily shining its boot for a western-style 1988 Winter Olympics, less than a year away
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March 09, 1987

Countdown To The Cowtown Hoedown

Undeterred by a mostly snowless winter, Calgary is busily shining its boot for a western-style 1988 Winter Olympics, less than a year away

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It is 4:40 on a Wednesday afternoon Calgary's round and charismatic mayor. Ralph Klein, sits in his office sipping a second glass of Scotch. "We know it's going to be one big party," he says of the 1988 Winter Olympics. "The only thing that hasn't been defined is the quality of the party."

Klein, you must understand, is no fish out of water on the topic of parties. Hizzoner can discuss the quality of big-time shindigs the way a Burpee salesman can talk about the fine points of bean sprouts. Each July, Calgary hosts its infamous Stampede—10 days of civic debauchery interrupted by the occasional barrel race—which attracts roughly the same number of spectators a day (100,000) as are expected for the Olympics The Stampede is by all accounts, a quality party, a frontier hoedown first and a rodeo second a 231-hour blowout for man and livestock alike Klein for one doesn't see why the '88 Winter Games should be any different. "This isn't World War III we're planning for," he says. "We'll try to do some of the same things for the Olympics that we do for the Stampede. Outdoor bonfires and street dances. People will be encouraged to dress western. We'll have ice sculptures. The theme is going to be cat, drink and be merry. And maybe even meet Mary, if you want to. Nobody knows how to throw a party like Calgarians."

A bacchanalian Olympics. And some damn good sport, to boot. With less than a year to go before athletes from 52 countries and five continents start descending on Calgary, the XV Winter Olympics are not exactly shaping up as the Austerity Games. Calgary isn't quaint (the city sprawls over 193 square miles), it isn't Old World (the skyline is a numbing array of steel and glass) and it certainly isn't sophisticated (Calgarians by the thousands dress in garish red and white whenever their beloved NHL Flames battle the archrival Edmonton Oilers). It isn't even in the mountains, which stand 65 miles away and cannot be seen from the downtown area unless you take the elevator to the top of Calgary Tower a structure that next Feb 13 will be transformed into a 646-foot Olympic torch when a 20-foot flame is lighted at its crest And it definitely isn't a winter wonderland: There has been so little snow in Calgary this winter that when a pre-Olympic festival was held last month ice cut from glaciers and scraped from local rinks had to be brought in so festival organizers could build the obligatory ice sculptures.

But Calgary is western. Superlatives such as "tallest," "richest" and "first" are very much in vogue in this overgrown cowtown, which, for all its shortcomings, is infused with that can-do frontier spirit with which the creators of the original Games must have been blessed. Hey, if it ain't right, we can make it right.

Which, but for a single, glaring exception, the organizers of the Calgary Games seem to have done. The horizon is unclouded with threats of any sort of boycott. The facilities, ranging from first-rate to state-of-the-art, are either finished and operational, or on schedule and on budget. The mood in town, however, is a little ornery.

More than a little, in fact. Downright ornery, a state of mind that has descended on this city over a little matter of tickets. There aren't enough of them. And no one is being very gracious about it, either. Calgary has a population of 640,000, and the local citizenry wants tickets by the feed bag-full. Not just any tickets, mind you. They want tickets to the glamour events: the opening ceremonies, medal-round hockey games and speed and figure skating competitions. They want to go to the 43 events that have already been sold out, never mind that some 800,000 tickets remain to a variety of competitions, including women's downhill, the biathlon and the ever-thrilling luge. They want tickets because they have been misled about their availability by, among others. Frank King, who as chairman of OCO '88 (the organizing committee whose acronym stands for Olympiques Calgary Olympics, of course of!) is the Peter Ueberroth of the XV Winter Games. Only 10% of the tickets would go to Olympic "insiders," Calgarians had been told, when in fact as much as 50% of the tickets to premier events went to sponsors, officials and governmental pooh-bahs.

The financing of the Games is another source of public concern. OCO '88 is counting on its $226 million share of ABC's $309 million in rights fees; another $57 million from sponsors, suppliers and licensers; $27 million from ticket sales; $18 million from Canadian, European. Asian and Soviet bloc broadcast rights: $39 million from the federal and city governments: and $40 million from interest and other sources. Various government bodies are providing another $228 million worth of services and facilities. All this adds up to $635 million, more than the $413 million it cost to put on the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which involved four to six times as many people, and nearly four times the $172 million price tag of the '80 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. The Calgary Games are so flush with revenues that officials expect a surplus of at least $48 million to add to $75 million in trusts they've earmarked to go to the Canadian Olympic Association and to the Calgary Olympic Development Association, which will operate Calgary's facilities as training sites after the '88 Games are history.

Still, Calgarians are suspicious. This is Canada, after all, whose only previous foray into hosting an Olympics—the '76 Summer Games in Montreal—left a monumental legacy of debt. And Canadians, by nature, expect to fall flat on their faces in almost any international forum. Cursed by an inferiority complex the size of the Yukon, the result of a century of living in the shadow of Big Brother to the south, the good-natured Canadians have a tendency to believe that somehow, somewhere, someway, their government—or in this case, OCO '88—is going to screw up. "Everytime I go to the States I'm amazed by their attitude of, 'Hey, no problem, we can do it,' even if they've never done it before," says one Calgarian. "Canadians are the opposite. When things seem to be going great, that's when we look hardest for the cloud on the horizon. We've got a big horizon up here. Usually you can find one."

The truth is. Canadians are pretty good at staging mega-events. Last summer's World's Fair in Vancouver was wildly popular, as was its predecessor by 20 years. Montreal's Expo '67. And while the Montreal Games were a financial Armageddon, they were also the Games that put the Olympic movement back on track after the human tragedy at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Montreal Games were first-rate, but it was to Los Angeles that the organizers of OCO '88 looked for their role model.

"We learned from the L.A. Olympics that sport should rely on television, private donors and corporate sponsors," says the 50-year-old King, who is on leave as chairman of Amerigo International, a Calgary-based company specializing in enhanced oil recovery. "The Olympics can be run as a business and still have a festival atmosphere. We've exceeded even L.A. revenues for the broadcast rights to the Games, and now our job is to give value for those rights—not so much for this Olympiad as for future ones."

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