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TSN25: Calgary hosts the 1988 Winter Olympic Games

Jamie Bell, TSN.ca

8/25/2009 10:11:30 AM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, TSN.ca is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up is one of the best-organized international sporting events in recent memory - the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

In 1988, the eyes of the world were focused on the province of Alberta as Calgary played host to the 15th Olympic Winter Games.

Fifty-seven nations and over 1,400 athletes converged on Calgary to produce one of the most memorable and well-run Games of the modern era.  As one IOC member stated to then-Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein, "Everything is perfect!"

While the Games officially opened on Feb. 13 at McMahon Stadium, the story of Calgary's Olympic dream began in 1964, when the city lost out in their bid to host the Games to Innsbruck, Austria. Undaunted, the city once again bid on the 1968 games, only to be edged out by Grenoble, France. 

Learning from their setbacks, the organizers took some time to improve their bid and the city was eventually rewarded by defeating Falun, Sweden in 1981.

And the Rocky Mountains set a picturesque background to the drama that would unfold over the 16 days.

Teresa Kruze was TSN's reporter in Calgary during the Games. In her role as co-host of the opening ceremonies (with TSN's John Wells), Kruze could immediately sense that something special was about to unfold.

"My career in television was just beginning and what an honor it was to be included in such a high profile event," she recalled. "Several times I had to choke back the tears of pride," Kruze recalled. "I was proud of my city, my country and my colleagues at TSN as we were about to embark on an amazing experience.  It was one of my proudest moments as a journalist and one that I'll always remember."

But the sense of pride that Canadians felt with the Opening Ceremony became somewhat dulled. Canada once again failed to reach the top of the medal podium, continuing our country's legacy as being the only host nation to fail to win gold at its own Games. 

While no Canadian was able to reach the pinnacle, there were many memorable performances by our athletes.

On Day 7, Alberta's own Karen Percy hit the slopes with reckless abandon in front of an impassioned hometown crowd to capture the bronze in the women's downhill - Canada's first medal of the festivities.

Percy would become the first Canadian skier in 20 years to win two medals in the same Games when she earned her second bronze in the Super-G.  She narrowly missed a third medal in the combined event, losing her grip on her ski pole and dropping crucial fractions of a second to finish fourth.

Percy was not the only surprise medalist for Canada.  Entering the Games, the battle for gold in women's figure skating was expected to be a battle between Germany's Katerina Witt and American Debi Thomas. What was billed as a ‘Battle of the Carmens' (both would skate to music from the Bizet opera ‘Carmen') turned into an on-ice version of the film ‘Rudy' as Canadian underdog Elizabeth Manley stole the show.

Skating in front of a partisan crowd, the Ottawa native turned in the skate of her life, electrifying the crowd during her long program and missing the gold by mere percentage points to Witt.

"We could see her get stronger and stronger as she reeled off one triple after another," Kruze explained. "In the final seconds of her skate, everyone in the stands realized they had just witnessed something special - and Elizabeth Manley knew she had delivered."

Heading into the Games, Canada's top prospect to capture gold was undoubtedly figure skater Brian Orser. A world champion in 1987, Orser's duel with American rival Brian Boitano was one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire Games.

Orser finished the 1986-87 season undefeated and had not lost a competition since falling to Boitano at the 1986 Worlds. An extra dose of pressure was placed on Orser, as he was named Canada's flag-bearer for the opening ceremony.

The ‘Battle of the Brians' turned into an epic competition of ‘can you top this' as the world's two greatest skaters brought out the best in each other. In the end, a slip for Orser during a triple-flip in his long program ended up costing him the gold. While he was noble in defeat, the distraught eight-time Canadian champion was forced to settle for his second Olympic silver medal (after finishing as runner-up to Scott Hamilton in 1984).

Canada's success on the rink continued, as the ice dancing team of Rob McCall and Tracy Wilson reached their peak at the right moment to earn a bronze medal.

Our nation's top athletes also performed well in the demonstrations sports of curling, freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating, thus setting the groundwork for Olympic success to come.

The Calgary Games was also the first-ever Olympic experience for TSN's Vic Rauter, who arrived at the network in 1985. Rauter covered many big events as a reporter, but it was Linda Moore's rink in the demonstration sport of curling that left him with his most lasting memory.

"It was the only gold medal (Canada) won and it went a long way to getting the sport finally recognized by the IOC," he said. "Ten years later in Nagano, Sandra Schmirler won gold for Canada."

Unfortunately for Canadian sports fans, the number of disappointments far outweighed the successes. Despite having a promising lineup that featured Sean Burke, Steve Tambellini, Jim Peplinski, Zarley Zalapski and Brian Bradley, the Canadian Men's hockey team failed to earn a medal for the third straight Olympics. A 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the Soviets sealed the team's fate as they were forced to settle for fourth.

While Canadian competitors were unable to reach their ultimate goal of bringing home gold, there were plenty of other international athletes who reached their peak in Calgary.

Italian skier Alberto Tomba arrived on the international scene by winning both the giant slalom and the slalom. On more trivial note, ‘La Bomba' had enough new-found notoriety to ask Witt out on a date, an offer she rejected!

In terms of personal achievement, no one soared higher than ski jumper Matti Nykanen.  The ‘Flying Finn' made a mockery of the competition by obliterating the field in the large hill event to capture the gold.  He would follow that up with gold again in the normal hill event. Nykanen then completed the ‘Golden Hat Trick' by helping lead Finland to gold in the team jumping event.

While Eddie Edwards was not able to reach the same heights on the hill as Nykanen, ‘The Eagle's' legend remains one of the most indelible memories of the Games. 

A former plasterer from Cheltenham, England, Edwards was Great Britain's lone representative in ski jumping. An outright amateur, Edwards finished dead last in both the big and normal hill competitions, but became a media sensation due to his appearance and spirit of competition. 

"He was too heavy to be a ski jumper," Kruze recalled. "He didn't have a lot of training because of poor financial support and he was so short sighted that he had to wear his glasses all the time - which would fog up making it impossible for him to see properly. But Eddie came through, the crowd went crazy and he even set a British record."

Some of his fellow competitors were less than amused, saying Edwards' amateurism made a mockery of the event. Following the Calgary games, much more stringent qualification rules were set to avoid athletes competing strictly for publicity.

Edwards was not the only athlete to earn notoriety for mediocrity, as one of the most memorable performances of the Olympics came from the Jamaican bobsled team.

The public was enthralled by a group of warm climate- amateurs brought together by a pair of American businessmen to compete in a frigid setting. Although the team crashed their sled and didn't finish the competition, they won the hearts of fans worldwide for their determination and desire to achieve their best on the biggest stage. Following their crash, they walked to the finish line to rapturous applause by the spectators. Their story was so remarkable that it was made into a Hollywood feature film in 1993 called ‘Cool Runnings.'

While the Games themselves were running smoothly, organizers had to deal with an unforeseen problem heading into the second week of the competition, unseasonably warm weather.

Calgary's infamous ‘Chinook' blew through the city, causing numerous problems as snow and ice melted and delayed to the start of many of the alpine events. Instead of shivering in the bitter cold, spectators were basking in the comfort of a mid-winter heat wave that kicked up dust and dirt and threatened to postpone several events. But the events went ahead as planned and the sudden change in weather brought about an additional benefit.

"People were on the outside patios drinking beer in their short sleeves," said Kruze. 

The Games themselves were an unprecedented success, as Calgary was also able to turn a profit. By contrast, the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal built up a monstrous debt that the city just finished paying off a few years ago. 

Many of the facilities built specifically for the Calgary Games continue to benefit athletes today. Calgary has become an international training ground for elite level athletes from around the world, including the Olympic skating oval (a venue that rivals any one of its kind around the world). Renovations to the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium have allowed Calgary's professional teams to thrive as well.

"I think the legacy of the Calgary Games had a profound effect on all Canadian athletes that are competing today," said Kruze. "After the Olympics were over, Calgary was left with world class training facilities and our success in speed skating, bobsled, luge and skeleton can all be traced back to the legacy of the Games."

But what the Games represented more than anything was a chance for the city to shine on an international stage.

"It was Calgary's coming out party," added Rauter. "The Western-style welcome, the hospitality - it showcased Calgary as a world class city and destination."