Ticket Scandal, Other Problems Concern Calgary
The 1988 Winter Olympics could be called the “I’m All Right” Games, or the “No Problem” Games, even the “Best of All Possible Worlds” Games.
To talk to the organizing committee of the 15th Winter Games or to Calgary city officials, everything is just great.
“The Games couldn’t be in better shape,” said Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Calgary Olympics Organizing Committee, or the OCO as it is known locally. “We’re ahead of schedule, we have surplus money and we’ll do better than any other Winter Games.”
Even Calgary’s mayor, Ralph Klein, who has sometimes had serious reservations about the organization of the Games, has said, “We’re looking good. The facilities are mostly complete and we’re well within budget.”
But there are a few buts, and they have created some real worries, particularly considering that when the Olympic Games were last held in Canada, in the summer of 1976, the host city of Montreal ran up a $1-billion deficit.
The mayor, whose basic support for the Olympics helped him build a recent reelection margin of 90%, acknowledged some edginess.
“We are now in an area of the great unknown,” Klein said about the 15 months remaining before the opening of the Games. The greatest unknown remains the costs.
When Calgary was awarded the Games in 1981, the costs were set at about $300 million. Now, the OCO estimates that the total will be more than $613 million, five times what Yugoslavia spent to stage the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo.
And even though Los Angeles, in the 1984 Summer Games, housed three times as many athletes as the 2,600 expected at Calgary, and staged many more events, the Canadian competition will cost at least $73 million more.
Then there is the matter of tickets. It seems that several thousand tickets allotted for sale in the United States were more than a week late in reaching their American sales outlets, allowing Canadians a perhaps inadvertent advantage in obtaining seats, even though all North American tickets were supposed to be distributed first-come, first-served.
In the meantime, Jim McGregor, 37, ticket manager for the Games, was arrested on fraud and theft charges in connection with false mail-order forms sent to 8,000 U.S. residents.
According to the indictment, McGregor stole official ticket-order brochures, altered them and sent them to 8,000 U.S. residents on the Olympic mailing list, asking that payment in U.S. dollars be sent to a Calgary post office box in the name of a company he set up, World Tickets, Inc.
The forms arrived in plain brown envelopes bearing no Olympic markings.
Regular ticket-order forms ask for payment in Canadian funds and are to be returned to a post office box rented by the Olympic organizing committee. Had it not been uncovered, the scheme would have yielded a 38% premium because of the difference in Canadian and U.S. currencies.
Police Chief Ernie Reimer said there is no evidence that any member of the public lost any money because the irregularities were detected soon after the bogus forms were mailed out.
“No one will be at risk,” he said.
McGregor was given a paid leave of absence for health reasons just before ticket irregularities were disclosed. He was fired after his arrest.
Even excluding McGregor, however, the organizing group has had a problem with personnel. Within the last two years, five senior OCO officials have resigned in anger. The latest was sports relations director Brian Murphy, who said he was quitting because of “differences in management philosophy.”
If costs, personnel problems and a ticket scandal are not enough to worry the organizers, there is the issue of snow. Calgary is cold enough and spends much of the year under snow, but frequently there are sudden and significant thaws in February, the month of the Games.
Furthermore, the major downhill and slalom races are to be run on a mountain 90 minutes away, where snow often is meager, requiring the installation of $18.5 million in snowmaking equipment.
Even if there is enough snow, either from the sky or machines, Marc Hodler, president of the International Ski Federation, and other experts have said that the runs are too flat and easy for world-class competition.
Not so, responded OCO spokeswoman Smith. International skiing officials say the site will be fine, she said, acknowledging nonetheless that some extra bumps are being added to the runs to make them more difficult.
With all the concerns and publicity over the high costs, one normal public relations reaction would be a blitz of the news media.
Instead, the OCO has all but clammed up, leading to a feud with the Canadian press in which OCO Chairman Frank King misquoted Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, as saying that the Calgary Games were receiving the most negative news coverage from a host city’s media in his experience.
Samaranch denied the quote, leading to ever-increasing bitterness between the OCO and the Calgary media.
The fact is, except for a few generalities, King and his colleagues have kept the details of the organizing effort mostly to themselves. When OCO members talk, it is usually to deny that any obstacles exist to making the Games a wonderful success.
John Lecky, a member of the organizing committee, speaks with pride about a contingency fund--the equivalent of 7% of the budget--to protect against unexpected costs. In six months, however, the contingency fund has been cut in half because of a decision to build a second village to house athletes and to expand the planned press facilities.
When King does address the question of skyrocketing costs, he, too, points to the contingency surplus and says: “It’s almost as if you are being criticized for raising too much money. We’re proud of the fact we’ve been able to raise more money than we first counted on.”
One reason that the Calgary committee has been able to keep up with increasing costs so far was that the ABC television network paid $309 million for the U.S. broadcasting rights, more than double what King expected. By comparison, the Canadian rights went to the CTV network for just $3.28 million.
And unlike the Los Angeles Games, which were financed entirely with private money, $241 million of the total budget for the Calgary Games is coming from various government bodies, which also are paying an undisclosed amount for extra security.
The OCO says there should be no more unexpected increases, that the budget is set. However, Hans Maciej, a Calgary businessman who refused to join the committee because of the high costs, said that he expects the final bill to reach at least $730 million, far out of proportion to any return to the city.
The federal government has also said that it will not increase its contribution.
But despite all the criticism, the OCO apparently is getting the job done. Even Klein, who tried unsuccessfully at one point to get authorization for an independent review of OCO operations, said that many of the high costs are justified.
“Los Angeles held costs down by using mostly existing facilities,” he said. “We are building nearly all new facilities and these are facilities that will benefit the city and Alberta for years after the Games.”
A tour of the facilities shows that on one level, at least, everything is going smoothly. Nearly all the competition sites are completed or construction is on schedule. All that is left for the builders is a $29-million speed skating rink, which is 70% finished.
The success of the Games, at least in terms of Calgary’s reputation, is at stake, according to Klein, and failure by the organizers to be more responsive could hurt ticket sales as well.
The budget assumptions are based on attracting 35,000 Americans, 36,500 Canadians and about 2,500 visitors from other countries.
Klein said: “My concern is that a bad feeling about the organizing committee in Calgary will spread and be picked up by the international media. We can’t afford or withstand such negativity.”
He added that the criticism is beginning to sink in, and cites what he said was a good response to the McGregor ticket mess as an example. “They immediately called in the police and went public with the problem. I think that maybe OCO has got the message.”
He smiled and repeated, “Maybe.”