Calgary’s first Winter Olympics has lessons for the current Games bid, historian finds

Learning From the Past: Troy Wason takes a brief break from work in his office in downtown Calgary on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Wason, who holds a master’s degree in history, was approached by Yes Calgary 2026 to research the 1988 Calgary Olympics. (Photo by Emilie Charette/The Press)

The 2026 Winter Olympic Games may be in Calgary’s future.

Only a yes vote by citizens in the Nov. 13 civic plebiscite, and a decision in Calgary’s favour next year by the International Olympic Committee will decide that.

But while everyone else in Calgary is worried about that future decision, one Calgarian has been spending his time thinking about the past, and specifically about the last time this city played host to the world.

Troy Wason, a political strategist and founder of Axxess Point Inc., holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Calgary.

He was approached by Yes Calgary 2026 earlier this year, and asked to research the 1988 Olympic Games as part of its campaign to win the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games for the city.

“I’m working with one of the spokespeople and looking at, not just the afterglow of the Olympics and what happened afterwards, but how we got there,” he said.

Having been a college student during the 1988 Olympics, Wason jumped at the chance to trace the history of the Games. His focus was mainly on finding the parallels between the 1988 Games and the proposed 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“It was one of the most exciting times of my life, and it was exciting because as a student, I was in one of those paradoxical situations where I couldn’t afford to go to any of the events, but I felt like I was a part of it every day.”

His research has consisted of browsing hundreds of archived newspaper clippings from the time period, taken from The Calgary Herald and The Albertan, among others.

In the Local History room at the Calgary Public Library, there are 78 file folders “filled with clippings,” Wason said in a recent interview.

Two of the driving forces behind the 1988 Games were Frank King and Bob Niven, both members of the Calgary Booster Club. King and Niven both volunteered to chair the committee for the Olympic bid.

“They were the folks that believed in it and they ran it ‘the Calgary way.’ There was a real spirit to it, there was a real sense of volunteerism.”

The city’s successful bid for the 1988 Olympics, which was announced by the International Olympic Committee in 1981, was actually Calgary’s fourth attempt at getting to host the Games.

From the start, the effort had the support of the city’s business community and important citizens like Peter Lougheed, a well-connected local lawyer who in 1971 was elected premier of Alberta.

Lougheed was a long-time supporter of and participant in sports. He was an athlete at the University of Alberta and even played football briefly for the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1950s.

“I don’t think there was ever a time when Peter didn’t believe in sports,” said Wason.

Lougheed was a champion of Calgary’s attempts to win the Olympics, beginning in 1964, and continued to be a major supporter for the effort, throughout his time as premier, and afterward.

Lougheed even participated in the 1988 Olympic torch relay, which brought the flame to Calgary after a trip around the world.

Another thing that made the Olympic bid so successful was the consistent backing of each of the three levels of government.

Calgary’s mayor in 1981, Ralph Klein, strongly supported hosting the games, as did the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau.

“The combination of the people and the governments and corporations all came together, and the world came to Calgary.”

There were plenty of people on both sides of the Olympic debate prior to 1988.

However, no plebiscite was held for the 1988 Olympic bid, as there appeared to be a consensus in support of the bid, from the beginning.

One of the primary concerns then was money, especially after the financial disaster that was the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympic Games.

“As I move forward, I know there’s trepidation on behalf of people, and there rightly should be – this is an unknown,” said Wason.

“You’ve got a lot of things that are going to happen in the next eight years, but I take a mentorship from the individuals who said, ‘We can do this,’ and they did it.”

Part of Wason’s research has been focused on finding out what worked 40 years ago and seeing how Yes Calgary 2026 can implement, or learn from it.

Then, as now, a lot of emphasis was placed on hosting the Games with a spirit of friendliness and getting everyone involved as much as possible. Every Calgarian was, in effect, an ambassador.

Despite people’s misgivings, the excitement that took hold as the city as the Games neared was palpable.

Wason has vivid memories of standing on Crowchild Trail S.W. near what was then Mount Royal College, and cheering as the torch went by.

It was one of the most exciting times of my life…I felt like I was a part of it every day. – Troy Wason

“Even the people that were probably the naysayers were out on the street and cheering.”

Wason is firm in his belief that hosting the 2026 Games could be beneficial for the city, providing it with opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship.

With the city currently in what he described as one of the worst boom and bust cycles ever, he is hopeful that progressive thinking, not fear, will shape how Calgarians vote on Nov. 13.

“I would like to see that spirit come back to Calgary.”

About Emilie Charette 3 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Emilie Charette is working as a writer for The Press during the 2018-19 academic year.