Endangered legacy: loss of Olympic facilities in Calgary puts athletes at a disadvantage

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CALGARY — With each Olympic Games comes the promise of a wonderful, lasting legacy: new infrastructure for the community and world-class sports facilities to develop young athletes and support medal winners. This is how the cost of the Games is sold to taxpayers.

The Olympics – or, in Toronto’s case, the Pan Am Games – are one of the few ways to build new sport infrastructure in Canada. This is why sports executives say it is so disturbing to see the loss of the facilities for one of the world’s greatest Olympic successes: the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

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

WinSport, the non-profit organization mandated to operate the Canada Olympic Park facilities and maintain the sporting legacy of the 1988 Games, says the closures are financially motivated. He says he can no longer meet all of the costs associated with providing facilities and services for grassroots, developmental and high performance athletes, even with the millions he receives from the fund each year. endowment granted to him to do this work.

The fund is “not large enough to support Canada Olympic Park, our (operating) deficit and the Oval deficit and serve all of our stakeholders,” said Barry Heck, President and CEO of WinSport. “So we have to decide where can we get the best value for money.

“The easy answer for us would be to say that we are no longer in the field of high performance sport. We could operate Canada Olympic Park at a balanced or even profitable level tomorrow. But that’s not what we’re here for.

This is exactly what some sports executives are saying that WinSport is doing by taking more and more of their high performance facilities and services off the table and choosing to shift towards more recreational pursuits.

Announced Canada Olympic Park offerings now include Western Canada’s largest tube park, North America’s fastest zip line, descending from ‘iconic ski jump tower’, karting experiences downhill and summer bobsleigh. Canmore Nordic Training Center is billed as a wedding venue.

“They are very consciously and deliberately moving away from the type of site that has recreational facilities but has a high performance mandate,” said Peter Judge, Head of Freestyle Canada and former Director of Winter Sports for Federal Funding. . agency Own the podium.

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

This is of particular concern, he says, given how prolific these facilities are in producing the country’s top winter athletes. Twenty-three of Canada’s 29 medals at the Pyeongchang 2018 Games were won by athletes who trained or competed in facilities funded by WinSport. WinSport proudly notes that over 70 percent of all Canadian medals at the Winter Games since 1992 have been won by athletes who have trained or competed at the WinSport facilities and on the oval.

But while Canada’s main winter sports hub regards the “Olympic era” as part of its “original history” and now sees itself as a year-round destination “for healthy activities and gatherings social, ”as its most recent annual report indicates, what does this mean to nurture the next generations of Olympic athletes across the country?

Alexandria Loutitt, who is expected to compete in the Beijing Games, was nine when she was introduced to ski jumping at a WinSport camp. She was 15 and looking to make the national team when Calgary Ski Jumps closed.

“It was a real dilemma of what to do,” recalls her mother, Tracy McKay. “She had some potential and it was like, ‘Well, what are we doing; how far are we willing to go to make his dreams come true? “”

They were ready to send him to Germany to live with friends who happened to live at the base of a world-class ski jumping center.

Today, 17-year-old Loutitt is part of Canada’s national team and lives and trains in Slovenia. She is the only athlete who was on the provincial development team when the Calgary hills closed who is still in the sport, she said.

Although born long after the 1988 Games, she was a child of those Olympics, her life being shaped by the legacy they left.

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

“It’s quite overwhelming for me as a young athlete who wants to see more children grow through sport, not only ski jumping but also board sports,” says Loutitt. “Not only are we losing these incredible facilities that were a legacy, but the sport I am sure would lose incredible athletes.”

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

But Canada regularly wins medals in bobsleigh and has also enjoyed Olympic success in skeleton and luge, so losing the slide track in Calgary is much harder to erase.

“Our trail is not dead,” says Heck. “It’s pending.”

It needs a $ 25 million refurbishment, he says, and after getting partial funding here and there, WinSport is still $ 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 funding for facility upgrades.

As Lyndon Rush, a Bobsleigh Canada coach, puts it, “The more you don’t hear about it, the less likely it is to come back. All of that legacy in Calgary, as well as throughout the city, is really in the doldrums right now. “

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

These two sports federations, with the help of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own the Podium, had to pay just for WinSport to open the snow park and build a halfpipe last year. The necessary money has been found because there are so many athletes with medal potential for Beijing and beyond, but so many user-payers are not viable for sports federations with their own financial problems. , said the judge.

“If we’re going to keep this facility going, it’s going to take an injection of money or some sort of replenishment (to the endowment) or it’s just going to dry up and blow away in the wind,” he says.

And with it part of Canada’s future Olympic potential.

“To lose those kind of anchor facilities, even if they’re not five-star luxury, it doesn’t matter, they just have to be at a level that people can get in mileage. Accessibility and affordability – these two elements are essential to the long term success of a system.

This is true for all aspects of the sport, from beginner to developmental levels and elite athletes. And that’s another ongoing challenge in Canada, where there is never enough money to meet their different needs.

WinSport didn’t provide an exact figure on what it would take to renovate its facilities over the next several decades, but Heck says the numbers put forward in the rejected bid for the 2026 Games would do the trick.

“It would have been back in ’88, only better,” he says.

The offer included $ 100 million in capital spending to renovate facilities like the sliding track and the oval, but not the ski jumps – “we’re no longer in ski jumping” – and $ 130 million. dollars to increase the endowment fund, which would essentially double the annual funds available to subsidize sports operations, including the most expensive component, high performance. These funds produced $ 5.5 million for WinSport and $ 3.7 million for the Oval last year.

But no one is offering those big bucks now.

“It’s usually done by the federal government as part of the Major Games, whether it’s the Pan Am Games or the Vancouver Olympics. It’s off the radar for Calgary anymore, ”Heck said. “So we have to find another way. “

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