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Some Call It Chaos, Calgary Calls It Fun : Problems Had Once Been in the Wind, but Olympic Host City Has Circled the Wagons

Times Staff Writer

On Mayor Ralph Klein’s Saturday morning radio talk show, a concerned citizen once complained about stray cats in Calgary. He suggested that they be licensed. When Klein told him that an English law enacted by Henry II prohibited the licensing of cats, the caller was undaunted. He said that since horses are licensed, cats should legally be declared horses.

Calgary is one of those can-do cities, where anything seems possible. Well, almost anything. Cats are still cats. As for the Winter Olympics, that’s a horse of a different color. They may never be the same.

The Opening Ceremony for the XV Olympic Winter Games, as they’re officially known, is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at McMahon Stadium, which is a football stadium but is not named for the Chicago Bears’ quarterback. He would like it here, though. How can you not like a place where the mayor’s primary concern when he greets people is, “Are we having fun yet?”

The consensus seems to be that we are.

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Perhaps that’s because bars have been allowed to open seven days a week instead of six during the Olympics, or because the rodeo is coming to town as part of the Olympic Arts Festival, or because Miss Nude O-Word finally will be crowned Saturday night after an exhaustive week of preliminaries.

The O-Word. That stands for Olympics, which, for a few years, could hardly be uttered without people covering their ears, and then their wallets. There was one front-page controversy after another, beginning the day the good old boys from the Calgary Booster Club returned from Baden Baden, West Germany, in 1981 with approval from the International Olympic Committee to stage the 1988 Winter Games. Three times before (1964, 1968, 1972) the city was rejected. This time, Falun, Sweden and Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Italy went home losers.

Environmentalists screamed because they feared bighorn sheep would be routed off Mount Allan, the site for alpine skiing. The international ski community screamed because it doesn’t snow much at Mount Allan.

Volunteers and paid staff members of the local organizing committee, Olympiques Calgary Olympic (OCO ’88), screamed because of a power struggle at the top that was said to cause more than a few employees to lose their jobs. The powers-that-be screamed because somebody, or several somebodies, aired OCO’s internal strife to the press.

A northern Alberta Indian tribe, battling with the federal government for years over land and oil rights, screamed because it knew it would be heard as a result of the increased international focus on Calgary. The federal government screamed because an OCO ticket manager allegedly attempted to defraud Americans out of money by playing loose with the exchange rate. Nobody cared if he tried to cheat Americans. That might even have made him a hero in Canada. But when he allegedly tried to stash the money away in his own account, he went too far.

Meantime, the people of Calgary, aware of Montreal’s $1-billion deficit after the 1976 Summer Olympics, watched their governments--federal, provincial (Alberta) and city--pour about $400 million into state-of-the-art sports facilities and wondered if they, the taxpayers, were eventually going to have to pay.

That was the second most asked question here.

The most asked question, as Calgarians cast their wary eyes toward the Olympics, was, “Where can we get tickets?”

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Then they screamed when they discovered they couldn’t, at least not to the ice hockey medal games, the figure skating or the alpine skiing. There are still thousands of tickets available for the biathlon. There were charges, most of them substantiated, that Olympic officials, sponsors, city aldermen and OCO staffers received preferential treatment.

But that’s yesterday’s news.

Today, the Winter Games are four days from opening, and virtually everybody here is talking about them being the biggest and best ever. It’s a fact that they are the biggest. There are athletes from 57 countries here, beating the previous record set four years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, by eight. Whether they are the best is yet to be determined. But IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, a vocal critic of the organizing committee in the past, said this week the only thing he can complain about is that there’s no reason to complain.

After polling 600 citizens in late November, OCO announced that 91% of the people in Calgary support the Olympics.

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On the Calgary Herald’s editorial page recently, columnist Roy Farran wrote:

“We should not let the compulsive critics get to us. We are indeed a cow town, the capital of the cattle kingdom, where rodeo, stetsons, big belt buckles, high-heeled boots and square dancing make us as uniquely interesting as leather shorts in Austria, pearl-buttoned cockneys in London, wooden clogs in Holland or berets in Paris.

“We are renowned for friendliness and Western hospitality and have remarkably few chips in our shoulders. Above all, we are not so phony as to pretend to be something we are not.

“Our city is modern and well-planned. It has grown from shacks with sod roofs, built by homesteaders who arrived with nothing, less than a hundred years ago. That alone is an incredible achievement unmatched by anywhere in the world. Those first settlers, only two or three generations back, survived a tough climate, poverty and shortage of capital to build a balanced society, which most of our visitors will understandably envy.

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” . . . Calgarians do promise, however, whether you like us or not, to give all of you a warm, Western welcome to the best gol-darned cow town in the world.”

What do you say to that, compulsive critics?

What about, “How’s the weather?”

That’s the one question that still gives the organizers restless nights because they have no control over the weather. It has been cold enough here lately, the temperature rising above freezing Sunday for the first time in almost two weeks, and an impressive snow base covers the ground. Calgary looks like a Winter Olympics city.

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But longtime residents know that the Chinook winds can blow in from the west and turn this town into Palm Springs within two hours. Chinook is an Indian word meaning snow eater. According to legend, the Chinooks are the warm breath of an Indian maiden lost in the mountains. Meteorologists say Chinooks are strong winds that become warm and dry in descending a mountain slope, in this case the Rockies, and compare them to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.

OCO President Bill Pratt recalled one afternoon when the temperature soared from 29 below to 72 above. While that is wonderful if you want to play golf on a February day, it is not conducive to outdoor sports associated with the Winter Olympics, such as skiing. Mount Allan became known as Mount Slushmore last February, when the Chinooks disrupted women’s World Cup races. OCO evened the score with Mother Nature a week later, when the men’s World Cup races were a great success.

To their credit, OCO officials are not just talking about the weather. They’re doing something about it, stockpiling several inches of artificial snow so they will have something to spread on the mountain in case the real stuff melts. As for the possibility of high winds playing havoc with the ski jumpers or blowing dust onto the bobsled and luge track, the organizers say they can lose several days of competition and still finish within 16 days.

In comparison, all other problems appear minor. Are enough people going to take public transportation so that there aren’t massive traffic jams on the four-lane highway between Calgary and the skiing events in Canmore and Nakiska, about 60 miles from downtown? You no doubt remember that one from the Los Angeles Games. Will the nurses return from their strike? Are there going to be enough portable toilets? Can the police catch the hooligans who are stealing the colorful banners that have been displayed throughout the city? Is the Name Police going to relax its reign of terror?

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The Name Police, as the Olympic Trust of Canada is known in the local press, has been cracking down on businesses using the word Olympics without paying for the right. Through Thanksgiving, the Olympic Trust had coordinated 59 court cases, many against small businesses. A highly publicized case involved Marty’s Cafe, which advertised itself as “Your Unofficial Olympic Headquarters” on its placemats.

To avoid litigation, the trademark-abiding owners of Banana Maxx, a nightclub, are looking for the Miss Nude O-Word instead of the Miss Nude you know what.

The only other recent complaint has come from the McKenzie Brothers, who became regulars on Second City TV in their roles as a pair of rural Canadians. These OCO officials, they say, are hosers for not including ice-fishing as a demonstration sport, eh?

Some people are never satisfied. Because Calgary is the world’s curling capital, that sport has been included as a demonstration event. So have freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating. But the cowboys wanted a rodeo. Because it didn’t seem likely to win IOC approval as a sport, seven nights of rodeo programs were added as cultural events. Black-tie not required.

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Calgary’s roots are in the Wild West. The Royal Canadian Mounties established Fort Calgary in 1875 to restore order after unscrupulous Americans came north and began plying the native Indians with whiskey in exchange for furs. The Indians were getting most of the whiskey about 200 miles from here in a boomtown called Fort Whoop-Up. Then the Canadian Pacific Railway came through in 1883, closely followed by the cattlemen and Eastern European farmers. In 1914, oil and natural gas were discovered about 25 miles south of here in Turner Valley, giving Calgary more prosperity over the next six decades than it could handle.

During the 1950s alone, the population doubled. It now is Canada’s sixth-largest city in population with 640,000 residents and second-largest in area. Glass and steel skyscrapers rose out of the prairie, including the 623-foot Calgary Tower that will become a gigantic Olympic torch during the Games.

Superman II was filmed here because the moviemakers thought the skyline reminded them of the fictional Metropolis. The city became a business and finance center, attracting white-collar oil executives as well as communications and computer companies and international bankers. You have your choice here of the symphony, the opera, theatres and art museums.

But, before the Olympics came to town, the one thing that Calgary was known for around the world was the Stampede, a Mardi Gras for cowboys, complete with chuckwagon races, bronco busting and barbecues, that lasts for 10 days each July and attracts about 100,000 people to the city each day, the same number expected for the Olympics. During the Stampede, Calgary becomes Fort Whoop-Up.

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“Here’s what the Stampede is all about,” said Pratt, OCO’s president, in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Joe is walking down the street and bumps into his old friend Jack. So he says, ‘Hey, Jack, I didn’t know you were here. Where you stayin’?’

“Says Jack, ‘I don’t know. I’ve only been here three days.’ ”

Some people here say they hope the Olympics will help Calgary shed its cow-town image. Klein, the mayor, is not among them. He said he would like for the city to be recognized for its other attributes, particularly as a place for high-performance winter sports. With a three-year-old hockey arena, the Saddledome, a 10-month-old indoor speed skating oval, a new luge and bobsled track and two ski jumping towers, Calgary has North America’s best facilities. But Klein said he does not want anyone to forget Calgary’s heritage.

“There’s no bloody way I want to shed our image as a cow town,” he said. “Do you know how long it takes to acquire an image? We’re built on that image. It’s our Western heritage. If we start to lose it, we’ll never get it back.”

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Klein, 44, is a former television reporter whose beat was City Hall. His beef was the city’s unbridled growth. As the population went up, so did the crime, divorce and suicide rates.

“City officials used to tell me, ‘If you know so much about it, why don’t you do something about it?’ So I did,” Klein said.

He is in his third term as mayor, having won 93% of the vote in the last election. Known as the blue-jeans mayor for his disdain of formal wear, he eats lunch each day in the bar of the rustic St. Louis Hotel, taking complaints and suggestions from anyone who will sit down with him and share a beer.

Concerned because there was so much emphasis in the local media on OCO’s finances, Samaranch summoned Klein to IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and ordered him to put some fun into the preparation for the Games. Samaranch didn’t have to ask twice. Klein is an expert on fun.

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OCO still doesn’t mind talking about its money. Considering the $400 million that the local, provincial and federal governments spent for facilities and OCO’s $516 million operating budget, these have become known as the $1 Billion Games. OCO officials anticipate revenues of $556 million, including $309 million in a record television contract with ABC. That would give OCO a profit of $40 million, not including the $75 million it already has set for the future maintenance of the facilities. As for the governments, they already have compensated for much of their expenses through the lottery and a coin program. Klein said Calgarians’ taxes will increase $4 a year because of the Olympics.

The Olympics also restored the boom to a town that went into recession when oil prices dropped earlier in this decade. Klein said Olympic construction projects brought $430 million to the economy and thousands of jobs, and that he expects Olympic-related spending to produce another $689 million, including $50 million from tourists. Perhaps because of the revitalized spirit in Calgary, Klein said, six major non-Olympic construction projects downtown have resulted in another $550 million for the economy.

“You look around the city and see stability,” he said.

And snow.

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And friendly, unpretentious people.

And fun.

“We’ll try to do some of the same things for the Olympics that we do for the Stampede,” Klein told Sports Illustrated last year. “Outdoor bonfires and street dances. People will be encouraged to dress Western. We’ll have ice sculptures. The theme is going to be eat, drink and be merry. And maybe even meet Mary, if you want to. Nobody knows how to throw a party like Calgarians.”


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