October 12, 2018

Elephant-proofing the Games

by Stephen Hunt

For a proposed Winter Games bid, Calgary 2026 sure spends a lot of time talking about elephants.

At Jack Singer Hall 10 days ago, the elephant in the room was the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has acquired evil villain status (in many people’s eyes) worthy of a Marvel movie, remarkable for an organization that is essentially a global event planner.

At Mount Royal University last Thursday, the elephant in the (proverbial back) room was the fallout from the revelation that city hall neglected to reveal the hidden costs of relocating city bus barns in order to build an athlete’s village in Victoria Park.

Wednesday, at an informational session held in the Environmental Design department of the University of Calgary, the elephants were those white ones that arrive in Olympic cities as grand sporting venues, only to turn into abandoned pumpkins the moment the show hits the road.

That’s a whole herd of heavyweight concerns.

However, as every Marvel movie fan knows, for every evil villain, there’s a corresponding hero who’s strong, fearless, charismatic, smart, and articulate — and in the case of Calgary 2026, both a medal-winning Olympic athlete and a University of Calgary engineering student who loves to talk about infrastructure.

Cue Canadian luger Alex Gough.

Sliding centres

Wednesday, Gough — the first Canadian to medal in luge — acknowledged that sliding centres are usually what ends up abandoned after the Games have gone.

“Sliding centres are a huge investment,” she said, in a brief interview following her presentation at the U of C. “I think Whistler was $100 million to build.”

Eight years after hosting the 2010 Olympics, business is still booming.

“We (the national luge team)  use Whistler,” said Gough, “and it’s a venue we’ve worked hard to maintain usage of, in terms of grassroots development on all three sliding sports sides, and bringing World Cup events and junior World Cup events and North American Cups back to that venue to make sure the legacy of hosting an Olympics there is maintained and it doesn’t become a white elephant.”

(The 2026 Games will feature ski jumping at Whistler. Luge will take place at Winsport in Calgary, which draws 1.2 million visitors a year, according to a provincial press release).

The track record of sliding centres built by many past Winter Olympic hosts is less impressive.

“That drive and determination to make that happen isn’t there (in many of them),” Gough said.

“The sad fact is — luge may return once or twice in the next decade — to Korea,” she added.

“We’re supposed to go back to Sochi for World Championships. 2020. (But) I don’t know how many teams will participate.”

Elsewhere, it gets even worse.

“Nagano is about to close,” she said. “They’ve closed Torino.

“It’s (sliding centres) a hard venue to sell.”

On the other hand, there remains a regular circuit of sliding centres that host a number of international events that are still thriving years — even decades — after they were built for the Winter Olympics.

“Innsbruck (Austria)  is one of them,” Gough said. “Lake Placid. Park City (Utah too) — we have four tracks in Germany. We use Lillehammer a ton.”

Elephant breeders

The IOC has owned up, in its Agenda 2020 document, which dramatically rewrites the Olympic host handbook, to being white elephant breeders of a sort.

That’s why Calgary’s proposed bid seeks to reuse eleven venues built for the 1988 Games, while adding only two new ones: a mid-sized arena and a fieldhouse.

Calgary 2026 is built around the new idea that maybe you can be a city that hosts an elephant-free Games — and for a pretty shining example, look no further than Calgary 1988, which did more with its Winter Games venues than just about any city that ever hosted them.

“The Olympics going forward has to find ways to utilize those venues, and that applies to sliding centres as much as it applies to (skating) ovals and ski venues,” Gough said.






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