The winter of 1988 was quite the momentous time. I was about to turn sixteen and was focused, albeit anxiously, on honing my driving skills in order to obtain a coveted driver’s licence. Hormones were wreaking havoc on my body and mind. Girls were a growing distraction, dare I say, obsession. My part time job left me questioning my continued march toward adulthood. And I was in the midst of my most difficult year of minor hockey, having been unceremoniously cut from the top level rep team by a coach I’m convinced held a petty grudge against me from the previous season. Oh yeah, and Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics.
Those Winter Olympics coming to Canada was a huge deal for the nation. Montreal had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1976 but they were overshadowed by a fiscal scandal that would haunt that great city for decades. For Canada, any lingering afterglow from being in the global spotlight had long since dissipated despite Nadia’s historic perfect ten. Mind you, I was too young to remember those Olympics so perhaps my perception is biased. Whatever the case, for a proudly northern nation, the ’88 Winter Olympics were special. For Calgary, even more so.
I didn’t know much about Calgary back in those days. I certainly hadn’t the slightest notion it would one day play such an integral part in my life. Growing up in southern Ontario, I was aware of its existence but still too young and self-absorbed to have paid much attention to the combustible politics of the NEP or charter repatriation years earlier. As far as I was concerned, Calgary was mostly an afterthought with an odd rodeo event and a fantastic hockey team, I, by now, having all but given up on the Harold Ballard destroyed Maple Leafs.
The 1988 Calgary Olympics would change all that. It was the first Olympics, winter or summer, that I truly remember watching with interest. Prior to ’88, my Olympic memories could be summed up with three bullet points: Miracle on Ice, Boycott by Soviets, Boycott by West. Those aren’t exactly warm fuzzy type memories and they certainly aren’t swathed in Canadiana. I was choked it wasn’t Canada laying claim to that extraordinary hockey gold medal in Lake Placid. It bothered me that the Americans were dangerously close to usurping Canada’s Summit Series victory in the ongoing, informal ice war against the Soviets. A war still very much relevant in 1988 as the Berlin Wall remained intact and no Russian had set foot on NHL ice as a league player.
Calgary’s Olympics radiated with so much charm and good vibes that even a moody Ontario teen couldn’t resist getting caught up in the spirit of them, thanks mostly to numerous inspiring moments; Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, the Battle of the Brians, Elizabeth Manley (possibly my first athlete crush), Katarina Witt (nope, definitely my first athlete crush), the unique profile of the Saddledome, and the crowds of fans watching the medal ceremony in Olympic Plaza. It’s hard not to look back at those Olympics through anything but red, maple leaf tinted glasses and warm sentimentality cascading over your heart. It’s undoubtedly why Calgarians are currently flirting with the idea of bidding to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. I wholeheartedly hope we don’t.
Nostalgia is problematic that way. It muddies the brain and conveniently disregards the bad parts. That’s why most of you think childhood was fabulous and wish you could go back to high school. It’s why people get married more than once and why people so desperately want grandchildren. It’s also why nearly everyone forgets the havoc chinooks wreaked during those 1988 Olympics. We like to remember the good stuff and the happy feelings, all while forgetting the often more numerous bad stuff.
There are many practical reasons to resist hosting the Winter Olympics in Calgary a second time. Cost is undoubtedly the biggest of them. The world has changed significantly from 1988. Security alone would be monumentally more imperative and costly than in those carefree days at the tail end of the Cold War. All that Western hospitality Calgarians are so proud of might be a little less cordial with the city in lockdown for two weeks. Let’s not forget, this is a city that’s doubled in population and concurrent sprawl, engulfing the original Olympic Village and Canada Olympic Park once located on its western extremity.
The Olympics continue to belie fiscal prudence, regularly saddling host cities with constrictive debts and unused/underused legacy facilities. Even the most well-intentioned proposal to reuse existing facilities is destined to fall victim to governmentitis, resulting in revised plans and desires to up the glamour quotient. A city putting itself on international display won’t be content with off the rack dresses and generic cosmetics. Already the cynical (prescient?) among us see this second dalliance with the Winter Olympics as nothing more than a sly attempt at getting a new arena built for the Calgary Flames using public dollars. Hey, it worked swell the first time. Maybe this time we can build on in the shape of a pipeline?
There are also many subjective reasons for Calgary to abstain from trying to become an Olympic host city a second time. These are my own personal whims which you may or may not share but will surely persuade the multitudes. For starters, Calgary has already hosted the Olympics. I’m of the mind that these types of events are best spread around. I don’t like cities hosting more than once. It’s too much like remarrying the same man. I know there is precedent but I’d prefer those remain unfortunate exceptions to what should be a rule.
Similarly, I also think nations shouldn’t host the Olympics too regularly, and in case you’ve all forgotten, Vancouver just hosted the Winter Games in 2010. If Calgary were to host the 2026 version, that puts but a paltry 16 years and 3 Olympics between turns for Canada to host. That’s too close together as far as I’m concerned. I understand that the winter version is the smaller of the two Olympics and thus has a reduced pool of bidding nations, but so what? If the Olympics are meant to be worldwide sporting extravaganza then they should be staged in ever new and varied locales. It’s bad enough that the World Juniors is intent on milking the Canadian hockey teet on a biannual basis. We don’t need the IOC setting up an industrial tax dollar suckage machine on Canadian soil every decade.
Since we’re talking geography, if Canada were to host the Winter Olympics again, and that’s a big ‘if’ so soon after Vancouver, why would we do so in the western part of the country for a third time. Isn’t it time we tried this in the East? And no, I don’t mean Toronto but surely we could find an awesome location in the Maritimes or Quebec or, sure, Ontario? There are snow-covered hills in them parts too. As I said above, I like to spread things around. Let’s put the spotlight on a different region of this incredible, expansive country. Besides, would there not be a great many benefits in having elite athletic facilities available to aspiring athletes at both ends of the nation?
Mostly, though, I don’t want Calgary to host the Winter Olympics again simply because I don’t want those great memories of 1988 to be superseded or, worse, erased. We cannot recreate the magic that was 1988, sentimentality and good intentions be damned. The world has changed and Calgary along with it. The city has grown up. It’s now home to one and a quarter million Canadians. In 1986 the population was half that. Let’s not fool ourselves into an ill-conceived attempt at reliving a quaint but departed past. Let that past stand, alone, with all the pride and romance it so rightly deserves and focus our efforts and dollars on our present. Let others have the opportunity to create their own legends. And debts.
* this post was edited to correct erroneous population numbers given in the last paragraph