Fading legacy: Loss of Olympic facilities in Calgary leaves athletes at a disadvantage

CALGARY – Each Olympiad comes with the promise of a wonderful and lasting legacy: new community infrastructure and world-class sports facilities to develop young athletes and support medal winners. This is how the cost of the Games is sold to the contributing public.

An Olympic Games, or, in Toronto’s case, a Pan American Games, is one of the few ways that a new sports infrastructure is built in Canada. That’s why sporting leaders say it’s so disturbing to see the loss of the facilities of one of the world’s greatest Olympic success stories – the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

  • The ski jumping center was closed in 2018, sending the entire Canadian team to live and train in Slovenia.
  • The toboggan, skeleton and toboggan run was “discontinued” in 2019 and has not reopened. It has decimated development programs and made it a tougher path for sliders trying to win medals at the upcoming Beijing Games.
  • The Olympic Oval closed in 2020 due to mechanical failure, leaving Canada’s best athletes struggling to find motivation just to keep training. It’s open now, and this weekend is home to the last World Cup before the February Olympics, but it needs major upgrades to keep it going much longer.

WinSport, the nonprofit organization charged with operating the facilities at Canada’s Olympic Park and upholding the sports legacy of the 1988 Games, says the closures are financially motivated. He says he can no longer cover all of the costs associated with providing facilities and services for grassroots, developmental and high-performance athletes, even with the millions he receives annually from the endowment fund he was given to do that work.

The fund “is not big enough to support Olympic Park Canada, our (operating) deficit and the oval deficit and serve all of our stakeholders,” says Barry Heck, president and CEO of WinSport. “So we have to make decisions about where we can get the best bang for our buck.

“The easy answer for us would be to say that we are out of the high-performance sports business. Tomorrow we could operate the Canadian Olympic Park at breakeven or even profitable. But we are not ready for that. “

That’s exactly what some sports leaders say WinSport is doing by taking more and more of its high-performance facilities and services off the table and opting to move toward more recreational pursuits.

Olympic Park Canada’s announced offerings now include Western Canada’s largest tube park, North America’s fastest zip-line, “iconic ski jumping tower,” downhill go-karting and summer tobogganing experiences. The Nordic Training Center in Canmore is billed as a wedding venue.

Calgary's Big Hill has been closed for years and the rest of the ski jumping center was closed in 2018.

“They’re making a very conscious and deliberate shift from the kind of place that has recreational facilities but has a high-performance mandate,” says Peter Judge, director of Freestyle Canada and former director of winter sports for federal funding. Own the Podium agency.

“They are strategically moving away from the high-performance part.”

That’s particularly concerning, he says, given how prolific those facilities have been in producing the best winter athletes in the country. Twenty-three of the 29 Canadian medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games were won by athletes who trained or competed in facilities funded by WinSport. WinSport proudly notes that more than 70 percent of all Canadian medals at the Winter Games dating back to 1992 have been won by athletes who trained or competed at WinSport facilities and the oval.

But if Canada’s leading winter sports center considers the “Olympic era” as part of its “origin story” and now sees itself as a year-round destination “for healthy activities and social gatherings,” such as Your most recent annual report indicates, what does that mean to nurture the nation’s next generations of Olympians?

Alexandria Loutitt, who is expected to compete in the Beijing Games, was nine years old when she got into ski jumping through a WinSport camp. He was 15 years old and looking to make the national team when the Calgary ski jumping closed.

“It was a real dilemma about what to do,” recalls his mother, Tracy McKay. “She had some potential and she was like, ‘Well what do we do? How far are we willing to go to make your dreams come true? ‘”

They were willing to send her to Germany to live with friends who happened to be living at the base of a world-class ski jumping facility.

Today, 17-year-old Loutitt is part of the Canadian national team that lives and trains in Slovenia. She is the only athlete who was on the provincial development team when the Calgary jumps closed who is still in the sport, she says.

Although she was born long after the 1988 Games, she is the daughter of those Olympics, her life shaped by the legacy they left behind.

She is far from the only athlete with a story like that. But it’s one that won’t happen again, at least not in sports like ski jumping or sledding, where athletes start young.

“It is quite disturbing for me as a young athlete who wants to see more children participate in sports, not only ski jumping, but also sliding sports,” says Loutitt. “Not only are we losing these incredible facilities that were a legacy, but sports are losing what I am sure would be incredible athletes.”

For Heck, closing the ski jumps was a relatively easy choice. Canada has never won an Olympic medal in ski jumping and other sports such as freestyle skiing and snowboarding have grown enormously in popularity, requiring facilities and support.

But Canada consistently wins sled medals and has also had Olympic success in skeleton and luge, so the loss of the slippery track in Calgary is much harder to ignore.

“Our track is not dead,” says Heck. “It’s on hold.”

It needs a $ 25 million renovation, he says, and after getting partial funding from here and there, WinSport still has $ 8 million short. This has been the case since 2018, when Calgary decided not to bid for the 2026 Winter Games, which would have provided funds for capital improvements to the facilities.

As Lyndon Rush, a coach at Bobsleigh Canada puts it: “The longer you don’t find out, the less likely it will come back. All of this legacy stuff in Calgary, along with the entire city, is really in a slump right now. “

Even the sports that WinSport focuses on – freestyle skiing and snowboarding – have serious concerns about what their future in Calgary will look like.

Those two sports federations, with the help of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own the Podium, had to pay just for WinSport to open the terrain park and build a halfpipe last year. The money was found because they have so many athletes with medal potential for Beijing and beyond, but so much user pay is not sustainable for sports federations that have their own financial challenges, Judge says.

“If we want to maintain that facility, it will require an injection of cash or some kind of replenishment (to endowment funds) or it will just dry up and blow away,” he says.

And with it part of the future Olympic potential of Canada.

“To lose those kinds of anchor facilities, even if they’re not luxurious five-star, whatever, they just need to be at a level where people can take advantage of the mileage. Accessibility and affordability – those two things are critical to the long-term success of a system. “

That’s true for all aspects of the sport, from the entry-level game to the developmental levels and elite athletes. And that’s another ongoing challenge in Canada, where there is never enough money to meet your different needs.

WinSport did not provide an exact number of what it would take to renovate its facilities over the next several decades, but Heck says the figures presented in the rejected 2026 Games bid proposal would work.

“It would have been 88 again, only better,” he says.

That offer called for $ 100 million in capital expenditures to renovate facilities like the slide and oval, but not the ski jumping – “we’re out of the ski jumping business” – and $ 130 million to boost the endowment fund. , which would essentially double the annual funds available to subsidize sports operations, including the most expensive component, the high-performance component. Those funds produced $ 5.5 million for WinSport and $ 3.7 million for the oval last year.

But no one is offering those big bucks right now.

“This is usually done by the federal government through the major Games, be it through the Pan American Games or the Vancouver Olympics. That is no longer on Calgary’s radar, ”Heck says. “So we have to find another way.”

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