Passing the torch

The games are gone, but its legacy lives on

While the Olympic flame may be long extinguished, warm memories and many benefits of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary are alive and well 30 years later.

“The best thing about the Olympic experience was the forethought that went into its legacy,” said Dale Oviatt, senior manager of communications and stakeholder engagement for WinSport.

On Sept. 30, 1981, WinSport, formerly known as the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA), successfully won the bid from the International Olympic Committee for Calgary to host the XV Olympic Winter Games in 1988.

“In 1986, we sold the Paskapoo Ski Hill to the provincial government to be used as an Olympic venue,” said Oviatt.

That hill became the site of Canada Olympic Park (COP), which was the primary venue for ski jumping, bobsleigh and luge during the ’88 event. Following the Games, the Calgary organizing committee wanted to ensure that Olympic venues were here for decades to come. To that end, they put the $70 million of profit generated by the Games into an endowment fund to keep the facilities going, and that investment has paid huge dividends.

“That move by the committee has kept the facilities at COP relevant and flourishing 30 years later,” said Oviatt. “There aren’t a lot of Olympic host cities that can say the same.”

Though the 90-metre ski jump is no longer usable, as, according to Oviatt, “the way they jumped soon after the games meant you would land on the Trans-Canada Highway,” the smaller jumps are still in use, along with the bobsleigh and luge tracks. WinSport also added skeleton to the mix and built the only ski and snowboard halfpipe in Canada that meets Olympic standards. The halfpipe has attracted American snowboarder and two-time Olympic champion Shaun White to visit the park for training. Then there is the arena complex, with three NHL-size rinks and one built to international standards, with capacity for 3,000 people.

Apart from the facilities, the ’88 Olympics left a lasting economic mark on Calgary that can still be felt to this day.

“According to a study by Calgary Economic Development, the Olympic legacy contributes $120 million to the city’s economy each year,” said Oviatt.

Just as importantly, the Olympics put Calgary squarely on the international stage.

“We’ve always been famous for the Stampede, but this event made Calgary a winter-sports city and Olympic city,” said Oviatt. “Many athletes have moved here just to take advantage of the opportunities we offer.”

Adding to that fame were two movies inspired by the Games. Cool Runnings, a 1993 American comedy sports film starring John Candy, told the true story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s debut in competition in ‘88.

“That movie was shot here on location and we have a bobsleigh prop from it,” said Oviatt. “30 years later, we still have a ton of international visitors who know about it, so it still resonates with people.”

In 2016, Eddie the Eagle premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Featuring Hollywood stars like Hugh Jackman, Taron Egerton and Christopher Walken, the movie highlighted a British skier at the ’88 Games who was the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping since 1929. While it was shot in Europe, Oviatt says it “brought attention back to our facility and got people talking about the Olympics again.”

As Calgary now eyes a possible 2026 Winter Olympics bid, the infrastructure and experience from ’88 makes it a real possibility.
“Even in South Korea last week, the International Olympic Committee was singing Calgary’s praises,” said Oviatt. “I get the feeling they would love to see it return here.”

That’s a sentiment that many in Calgary would echo.

“The Olympics can be a terrific driver of long-term economic growth and a great tool to market your city if they are done right,” said Mary Moran, president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development. “We saw that the ’88 Games really put Calgary on the map globally and gave the city an economic impetus. People rallied around it and, in turn, it transformed us as a city.”

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