This article was produced in association with the Calgary Sport Tourism Authority
When 22-year-old free skater Kaetlyn Osmond took bronze at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang her success marked a new milestone for Canadian sport. It was the nation’s 27th medal of the Games, taking the team past the 26-medal mark earned on home soil at Vancouver 2010.
In all Canada took 29 medals – including 11 golds – and third place in the Medal Table, securing the country’s standing as a powerhouse of winter sport. In fact, 80 per cent of Canadian medals won at the 2018 games were by athletes who train or competed in Calgary and Canmore.
That’s something they’re massively proud of in Canada, and nowhere is that pride more evident than in Calgary, Alberta, a city where, locals will tell you, a good proportion of those medals were forged.
Calgary prides itself on being a Sports City; a city where Canada’s athletes choose to live and train not only because of the facilities but the support available through national sports organisations including Hockey Canada, the national federations for Alpine sport, bobsleigh and luge as well as Canadian Sport Institute, which, along with WinSport Canada, is a performance hothouse. The city is also home to Own the Podium, described as a co-ordinated made-in-Canada solution set up to focus the disparate resources of the sports system and channel them into medal success.
Calgary, whose downtown office towers are testament to its commercial success as a major centre for the oil and gas industry, but whose heritage as an agriculture or equestrian hub is never far from view, is a city which lives and breathes sport, and which has become a magnet for regional, national and international events as well as a base for countless elite athletes. Calgary is where the prairie meets the mountains, and the proximity of the Rockies helps explain the city’s relationship with winter sport.
The Canmore Nordic Centre, home to a host of Nordic disciplines, is just 45 minutes from the city and the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where the FIS Alpine season kicks off, only 90 minutes.
The city was chosen to host the Winter Olympic Games in 1988 and the legacy lives-on in a clutch of world-class facilities and an infrastructure which has helped create a sports culture that permeates many aspect of city life, whether it’s taking part in recreational sport or watching one of its pro sports teams, which include the NHL’s Calgary Flames, the Canadian Football League’s Stampeders and the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse league.
But sport in Calgary isn’t only about sport for Calgary. In the past three years alone, the city has hosted 41 World Cups and World Championships, 35 international championships and competitions and 68 national championships.
Now, with the city finalising its decision on a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games, it looks as though there’s every chance a virtuous circle established in 1988 will have a chance to continue to develop and strengthen.
Many of the facilities created for ’88 are still critical to the life of the city, representing a clear legacy success story. The Scotiabank Saddledome, which accommodates just over 19,000, is now home to the Flames while the Olympic Oval, created for the speed skating programme, has hosted countless subsequent events and is widely regarded as one of the best facilities in the world and one of the fastest tracks. It was the first covered speed skating oval in North America, and was the first at a Winter Olympics. The smaller Max Bell Centre held curling and short-track skating and remains part of the city’s varied facility stock.
The city also boasts a significant outdoor venue, the 36,000 capacity McMahon Stadium at the University of Calgary. Although not built for the ’88 Games – it opened in 1960 as the home of the University football team and now houses the Stampeders – it became the venue for the Opening and Closing ceremonies.
The story of Calgary’s enduring love affair with sports and sports events is perhaps best told through the voices of the people who both live there and who have both contributed to and benefitted from it.
Among them is Alice Humeny, an athlete who became a member of the organising committee for speed skating at the ’88 Games and who has never looked back. As chair of Organizing Committee Calgary, she has welcomed countless major events to the city and played a key role in developing its reputation as the leading speed skating host.
Three decades after those Winter Games, she feels it is the impact on the people of the city which has proved the most enduring legacy.
“People often first think of infrastructure and venues as legacies of the Games but in my experience the most meaningful and long-lasting legacy has been the volunteer spirit and sense of community. This has enhanced our ability to mobilise interest and expertise for a variety of events held in Calgary and our
Organizing Committee Calgary has contributed to various events outside of speed skating during our 30 years,” she says.
Among the secrets of the city’s success as a sports host is, she says, the determination to ensure that every event is “athlete-focussed”.
“We have surveyed and listened to the feedback from the visiting teams over the years and made adjustments accordingly. The secret is the delivery of a positive experience for our guests. It seems very simple; however, it is without a doubt the competent and friendly nature of our team that is most often mentioned.
“When I am at events in other countries I am always asked about specific volunteers as those individuals have left a lasting impression on our guests and are instrumental in creating a positive experience for them. Each member of our team contributes to this.
“The high-calibre delivery of the technical event is expected – the positive guest experience is what they talk about,” she says. She also believes the sport culture in the city breeds an appetite to help in hosting events.
“Sport brings people together – not only the athletes and coaches but everyone who is linked to the event in some way. It allows people in various roles, be it the high-performance athlete or the volunteer driver, to experience the event together and feel a sense of accomplishment in their role.
“This experience fuels the desire of individuals to continue to participate and contribute to other events in the city. In short, sport plays an important role in the creation of community.
“It is the combination of volunteer spirit and expertise in event management that has made Calgary a formidable sports destination,” she adds.
“The volunteer spirit comes into play when we interact with national/international guests and encourages them to come back and see the City during another season, whether during the summer for hiking and Stampede or during the winter for skiing.”
Among the many elite Canadian athletes to have chosen Calgary as her home is freestyle wrestling gold-medallist Erica Wiebe, whose passion for sport is also central to her work with some of the city’s young people.
“I moved to Calgary because I wanted to be in a training environment that offered the best coaching, training partners, and facilities. Calgary had it all and I needed a place to become great. It didn’t hurt that I visited for the first time in mid-February when the entire city was covered in fresh, snow, sun was out, and it was 5°C!
“Now I’m incredibly fortunate to train every day in world-class facilities alongside other high-performance athletes at WinSport. But I also access on a regular basis a number of the facilities across the city to mix up my training environment or just to play a game of pick-up soccer,” she says.
“Calgary is an incredibly active city with an unprecedented opportunity to engage in and support amateur sport. Over the winter, it feels like every weekend we are welcoming international competition, whether it’s freestyle skiing, bobsleigh, or speed skating. The sport communities are very close and very supportive. It’s great to have such an interconnected culture that drives excellence and passion.
“I believe in the transformative power of sport and I have been lucky to have incredible opportunities through sport but it has also taught me so many powerful lessons.
“It’s important for me to pass on those opportunities and skills to the next generation and therefore I am an ambassador for a number of grassroots organisations that use sport as a vehicle for social change.
“I work with KidSport Calgary which provides financial assistance to youth who can’t afford registration fees as well as Fast and Female which is a global organization founded in Alberta that is dedicated to empowering young women through sport.
“I also volunteered for eight months at an after-school sport program in a high-risk neighbourhood.
“The social landscape of Calgary is so diverse and vibrant., I’ve called Calgary home for just over a decade and it’s been exciting to watch the city evolve and transform,” she concludes.
One man with a firm grasp on the sporting dynamic of the city is Jeff Booke, chief executive of the Repsol Sports Centre, a multi-sport facility whose roofline has become a city icon since it opened three decades ago.
“The Repsol Centre is a world class facility providing aquatic and dry sports areas and a dual mandate to provide access to facilities not only for the development of elite athletes but for all the citizens of Calgary.
“The point is that we focus on both groups equally. Its about providing for training, competing and for playing,” he explains.
It’s a mission which, in many ways, encapsulates Calgary’s relationship with sport and which helps its sports culture thrive.
“Sport is a strong and positive part of life and there are lots of opportunities for recreational and high-performance sports participation and for being a fan!” he adds.
“At the Repsol Sport Centre we are a member facility from Monday to Friday and a competition venue for local, provincial, national and international events at the weekend.”
Those international events include the Fina Diving Grand Prix to be held in May, another tick in the city’s hosting box.
Jeff Booke, like Erica Wiebe and award-winning Alice Humeny, is excited about the prospect of a bid for the 2026 Olympic Winter games, both for the city and the Games themselves.
“I am a big proponent,” Booke says. “So much of the brand and reputation of the city is based on sport and, in particular, around the ’88 Games. This is about building on the legacy and making the city even better in the years to come.”
And according to Erica Weibe, the impact of ’88 is still evident and the prospect of a new Calgary Games is one to relish.
“People still talk about the ‘88 Games...it’s been incredibly impactful on the culture of the city. However, the city’s population has almost doubled since those Games.
“Hosting the Games in 2026 would reignite the Olympic flame in our city and provide an opportunity to inspire a new generation of Calgarians on the art of the possible,” she explains.
“I came to Calgary because of the talent, facilities, and volunteer legacy of the Games. The impact and value of the Games has lasted 30+ years and I would like to see the impact continue.”
But with or without the Games, sport continues to run through the veins of the city.
In addition to an impressive roster of annual events – including international showjumping at Spruce Meadows and countless national and local events including the world famous Calgary Stampede – the city has recently hosted the ISU Speed Skating World Cup, the FEI World Driving Championship and the FIS Ski Cross World Cup, the FIVB Volleyball World league and the FIS Freestyle Moguls World Cup, among others.
Calgary and the Bow Valley corridor will host 10 World Cups for the 2018/19 season including Bobsleigh, Luge, Short Track Speed Skating, Long Track Speed Skating, Freestyle Ski Moguls, Snowboard Halfpipe, Freestyle Ski Halfpipe, Alpine Men, and Alpine Women Biathlon events.
Erica Weibe describes her adopted city as “a place to become great” and it’s clear that it is events as well as individual athletes that are given the opportunity to flourish in a city where sport lives.