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Experiencing Winter Olympics in Calgary

© By Mike Keenan

  When you can't find enough cash to fly to Turin or Grenoble or wherever to take in the Winter Olympics, you can do the next best thing: visit Calgary's Olympic site and training centre and watch from there. It's a blast!
     The site is owned and operated by CODA, (the Calgary Olympic Development Association) determined to create Olympic winter sport excellence from the grassroots level to the country's best. Founded in 1956 for the initial bid Calgary bid, CODA was finally successful on its fourth try.
     Canada Olympic Park is Alberta's second largest tourist attraction outside the Rocky Mountains. It welcomed 1.3 million visitors last year, offering a wide range of ski, snowboard and Olympic winter sport programs including bobsleigh, skeleton, luge, ski jumping and Nordic skiing for all ages and abilities. In the accompanying picture, you will notice that CODA, after great thought and some persuasion, (Yes, money changed hands.) decided to award me a gold medal. Yes, that's me on the podium holding flowers and a torch. Okay, the medal was for perfect attendance, but that's also important.
     The slopes are conveniently 15 minutes away from downtown Calgary. A benefit of hosting the 1988 Olympic Winter Games is that facilities have become an important training ground for world-class athletes. Soon, Vancouver and Whistler will enjoy similar facilities and Canada's Winter Olympic hopes will rest solidly in the west.
     The Park's Ski hill is 3,707 feet (1,131 metres) high with a capacity to handle 7,000 people per hour. The 1.8 km cross-country ski track is equipped with snowmaking and lights and groomed daily. There's a biathlon air rifle range for Dick Cheney and friends in the cross-country area and bobsleigh rides are available to the public on the Olympic track. For the fearless, there's introductory programs in bobsleigh, luge and skeleton. I examined those devices and must report that "minimalist" does not even begin to describe their comfort level.
     I visited the ski jump and the $4.2 million "Ice House," the world's only year-round, indoor start training facility for Canada's bobsleigh, skeleton and luge athletes. Atop the 90 metre ski jump tower, I encountered the same incredible view as "Eddie the Eagle" in 1988, a unique panorama of the city and surrounding Rocky Mountains. Eddie's purple helmet rests inside a viewing case in the start area.
     There's an Olympic Hall of Fame with an impressive array of Olympic torches, equipment, pictures and other memorabilia to spur Canadian children on to future victories. Two floors of exhibits contain numerous artifacts and stations depicting our participation at the Winter Games since 1924.
     For Zamboni enthusiasts, the ice-making facility boasts 7.5 times the power of most modern day NHL arenas with a capacity of 1250 tonnes in a 24-hour period. At the time of my visit, Calgary's champion ice-maker was working his magic in Turin, probably hiding loonies as "good luck" charms.
     I cherish two memories. First, on my way to the speed skating oval and combined hockey rink, I walked a long passageway, walls adorned with large colour pictures of members of the women's perennial champion hockey team: Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell, Jennifer Botterill, Danielle Goyette and others. I felt proud of those young women. I would not want to be an opposing team player walking glumly along that long passageway towards the visitor's dressing room.
     The other emotional highlight was a lounge where many Canadian athletes had gathered to watch comrades compete on TV to witness Albertan firefighter, Duff Gibson, blaze to a gold medal with teammate Jeff Pain a silver as we staked claim to world skeleton supremacy. Thirty-nine year-old Gibson is the oldest individual gold medalist in Winter Olympics history. When he won, the lounge exploded with cheers.
     Will Canadians "own the podium" in 2010? Given the facilities and attitude in Calgary and those to come in BC, I think we have an excellent chance.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun. Click for Calgary, Alberta Forecast

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan: Olympic flame, gold medal, ski jump & slopes, skis for jumping, luge, speed skating, hockey poster, ski jump view, Olympic art.

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