A rainy day at the Olympic Oval in Calgary used to be hazardous for a speed skater’s health.
It meant placing warning pylons where water puddled on the ice and bringing out buckets to catch the drips from the ceiling.
“You definitely had to be careful when the roof was leaking,” speed skater Cindy Klassen said Wednesday at the Oval. “There would be little rivets in the ice. You’re skating so fast and if you hit that, you could go flying.”
But the 24-year-old building, built for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, has a new roof on it, to the relief of the skaters and hockey players under it. It happened to be pouring rain Wednesday during a news conference to unveil the $9.7-million project.
“The ice is really smooth right now,” said Klassen, a six-time Olympic medalist. “I started here about 12 years ago and it’s the best facility in the world for speed skating.”
The Olympic Oval on the University of Calgary campus is largely responsible for making Canada a powerhouse in speed skating.
Olympic medalists Catriona Le May Doan, Susan Auch, Klassen, Clara Hughes, Kristina Groves and Christine Nesbitt have spent much of their lives at the Oval, where they could skate, do dry land training and make use of sport science and technology at the university’s human performance lab.
Because of their climate and altitude, the Calgary Oval and the Salt Lake City Oval in Utah vie for the title of fastest ice in the world. The speed-skating oval in Richmond, B.C., used for the 2010 Winter Olympics is no longer a speed-skating facility. It’s been turned into a multipurpose recreational facility.
Almost all world records in long-track speed skating were set in either Calgary or Salt Lake. Klassen’s world records in the 1,000 and 3,000 metres were set in Calgary in 2006.
WinSport Canada, which oversees the legacy of the 1988 Winter Games, had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to pay for the new 20,000-square-metre roof.
WinSport, formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association, manages the facilities from the 1988 Games. WinSport pays for their upkeep with the interest generated from the financial investment of the profits from those Games.
Those investments took a beating in the recent recession and generated less money. At the same time, the roof’s condition was becoming dire.
WinSport, the University of Calgary and Speed Skating Canada jointly asked the federal government to revise the trust agreement of the endowment funds.
An agreement was struck. WinSport was able to draw from the principal of one of the funds to pay for the roof and can also draw from it to contribute $2.4-million annually for the next 20 years to maintain the Oval.
“You think of your own home after 25 years, you need a new roof,” said Dan O’Neill, WinSport Canada’s chief executive officer. “In this particular case, I don't know if it was dangerous, but it was clearly hazardous. There were buckets all over picking up droplets from the roof.
“It gets to a point where you say, ‘It’s not worth fixing.’ This is clearly not the case at this point, if you look around at the activity here every day, you know it’s worth fixing.”
While dozens of long-track speed skaters circled the Oval on Wednesday, the short-track speed skaters trained on a smaller ice surface in the middle and, beside them, female hockey players worked on their skills on a hockey rink.
Dozens of speed skaters from the Chinese national team stretched and jogged on the indoor track. The South Koreans will come to the Oval to train in September.
Le May Doan, an Olympic champion in both 1998 and 2002, is now associate director at the Oval. Calgary stages a World Cup or world speed-skating championship almost every year. Le May Doan has lived in fear in recent years of a wet snow causing havoc at those competitions.
“Everybody knows this facility is world class and yet there’s always been this issue with the roof for the last 24 years,” she said. “It’s the home of speed skating and will be the home of speed skating for the next 20 years, but finally there is no leaking.”
In addition to elite athletes, the Oval is widely used by the public for evening recreational programs such as indoor cycling, boot camps and learn-to-skate.
“For people to know they can come here on a rainy day and put on a pair of skates – hockey, figure skates, speed skates – and not worry about any bumps or leaking, that means everything and it’s important for our entire community,” Le May Doan said.