The 15th Winter Olympics (XV Winter Olympic Games) were held in Calgary, Alberta. These games managed to grab a few records, the first being the most widely-attended Winter Games in history (57 nations and more than 1,400 athletes), the most expensive Winter Games up to that point, and the first Winter Games where Canada failed to win a single gold medal! Calgary ’88 was also the first time that Jamaica participated in a Winter Olympics when they entered a bobsled team, made famous by the Disney film “Cool Runnings”.
Canada had hosted an Olympic event once before, in Montreal (Summer Games 1976), but had failed to win a second despite 7 attempts. The Calgary Olympic Development Association was formed in 1979 and managed to sell 80,000 memberships and raise more than $240 million to put forward a bid to host the 1988 Olympics. In a stroke of bad luck, CODA found itself competing with Vancouver, which was also putting forward a hosting bid.
After a couple of years of intense lobbying, Calgary won the bid in 1981, beating out Falun (Sweden) by 10 votes and Vancouver by 20. Canada had won a second Olympics!
CODA now had 7 years to prepare for a world-class Olympics.
When Olympic games are hosted, particularly in the modern age, the entire country and all its glory and foibles are exposed to the entire world. CODA recognized this and was determined from the get-go to show the world the best of Canada, particularly Western Canada. CODA set out to create a mass-media blitz in a campaign that all Olympics thereafter would come to use. The Calgary games were the first time that one single network was given complete broadcast rights, and then every other global network was forced to lease the feeds from them. This ensured that the Organizing Committee could control what was seen on televisions around the world.
In the case of Calgary, the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) won the rights to be the sole Olympic broadcaster with a $324 million bid, the biggest contract in broadcasting sports history up until that time.
Construction of the games was well-planned and easy to accomodate. The city already had an army of experienced volunteers who put on the annual Calgary Stampede, and these volunteers and organizers were able to kick into high gear for the Olympics. The construction, organizing and hosting of the games ended up costing Calgary $890 million, the most expensive Olympics, winter or summer, in history. The investment paid off, however, as the city raked in nearly $2 billion in revenues during the games and nearly $1 billion more in subsequent spinoff money over the next decade.
On November 15, 1987, the Olympic Torch Relay began in Olympia, Greece. The torch was passed from person to person around the world. The torch traveled 18,000 km before reaching Calgary, the longest an Olympic torch had ever traveled until the Sydney games in 2000.
The torch itself was made of maple wood and aluminum and modeled after the Calgary Tower. The fuel container was designed to keep the flame lit in adverse winter conditions, particularly as it passed through the Northwest Territories at the height of winter. The construction was a success as the flame didn’t go out once.
The opening ceremonies of the XV Winter Olympic Games were the most-watched opening up to that point, according to ABC research. It is estimated that nearly 500 million people around the world watched the ceremonies on television, the biggest mass-media event in history up until that time. Canada, and Calgary in particular, were truly front and center on the world stage that day.
The ceremonies went off without a hitch and, as one New York Times columnist wrote, were “..a spectacle unlike any seen before.”
The games were played for two weeks in the cold of an Alberta winter. The Soviet Union won the most medals, with 29 while Canada failed to win a single gold medal, setting another record for being the only host city in Olympic history to not win a gold medal.
The 1988 Winter Olympics came to an end 16 days after they began with a lavish closing ceremonies at McMahon Stadium. During the two weeks of events, the city of Calgary had brought in nearly $2 billion in revenues from tourism, broadcasting, advertising and international investment, making the Calgary Olympics one of the three most successful Olympics in history.
The Olympic park is still there, and is open to the public today. For a fee people can learn to bobsled, luge and ski jump there, and Canada’s bobsled team still uses the facilities for practice.