It was an inauspicious way to christen a ski jump – by almost sacrificing a ski jumper.
It happened when Horst Bulau officially opened Calgary’s 70-metre hill little more than a year before the 1988 Winter Olympics. Canada’s top jumper easily stuck his landing only to slide through the end run, out the 50,000-seat spectator bowl, off the edge of the counter slope before falling nine metres down a dirt ridge. If he’d gone just a little further, he would have reached the parking lot. Uninjured, Mr. Bulau did his best to play down the incident, which led to changes in the finish area and arguments that the facility was built in the wrong place.
Thirty-two years later, the ski jumps at WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park are as contentious as ever. The 90-metre jump hasn’t been used in more than a decade. Weeds and plants have grown over parts of the seating bowl.
A plebiscite on whether Calgary should hold the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games goes Nov. 13. It’s non-binding, but will determine how Calgary should proceed. The bid committee pushing for the Games wants to avoid Canada Olympic Park altogether and have ski jumping and Nordic combined held in Whistler, B.C.
That has put the future of the Calgary complex in doubt, so much so that there were reports the two biggest jumps were due to be knocked down as early as next week. WinSport president and chief executive Barry Heck said that isn’t the case. He insisted WinSport, the not-for-profit organization formed to take care of facilities from the 1988 Games, is willing to keep the three smaller jumps open for training providing it receives financial help for operating costs. The number it has negotiated with Ski Jumping Canada is some $340,000 a year.
It has also been agreed the 70-metre jump can eventually be taken down. As for its bigger partner, which stands as an Olympic sentinel on the western fringe of the city, there is no intent to demolish it, not when it’s still being used for things other than jumping.
“The big jump will never be used again for competition. It’s done,” Mr. Heck said.
“But we would never take that down. It’s iconic. We still use it to run a zip line [across the park]. We’ve got radio towers on the top [for cell phone usage]. And the big tower has power and water. We don’t turn it on unless we need it but we’ve got an office up there that we can lease out if someone wanted it.”
Mr. Heck added that staging Olympic jumping events in Whistler “makes perfect sense … The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee put a price tag of $70-million to rebuild [the Calgary jumps]. It’s not responsible to put a whole bunch of capital into a facility that won’t be well utilized after. It becomes another white elephant.”
Todd Stretch, the chairman of Ski Jumping Canada, is currently seeking a multipartner sponsorship to cover the $340,000 needed to keep the training hills open. Aviva Insurance sponsored the national jumping organization with $1-million leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. That Aviva is not signing on for another run has worried Mr. Stretch, who noted there will still be Canadian ski jumpers vying to compete in 2026 no matter where those Olympics are held.
“We’re doing our job; we’re getting athletes to the Olympics,” he said. “We’ve talked to all levels of government so we hope to hear something real soon about getting some operational funding to keep the programs going.”
There is no deadline as to when Ski Jumping Canada must hand over the money to WinSport, which has stated it simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to cover the maintenance of the three small jumps. (In its previous agreement with Ski Jumping Canada – it officially expires on Monday – WinSport secured sponsorship revenue and received $75,000 a year for three years from the Canadian Olympic Committee.)
What WinSport wants known is how much it has done over the years to assist the sport.
Mr. Heck said the organization has “easily invested $3-million just in little repairs since 1988 and covered all the operating costs for 30 years. We can put our hands on our hearts and say we have done everything we possibly can to keep this going. When we had lots of earnings from the [1988 Olympic] endowment fund, we actually funded the sport itself. We hired the coaches. We can’t do that anymore.”
The Calgary jumps were at their best and worst during the 1988 Games. The jump site, as critics had warned, was so exposed to westerly winds that the competition had to be postponed for several days over fears the athletes would be blown off-balance. At one point, there was talk of moving the men’s big hill final to Thunder Bay, which had hosted multiple International Ski Federation events. When the competition ended as intended in Calgary, Britain’s Michael (Eddie the Eagle) Edwards had stolen the spotlight with his spectacularly short plops while Finland’s Matti (Nukes) Nykanen won three gold medals without stirring many hearts.
Once the five-ring circus left town, the big jumps were used less and less until their biggest reprise was for a Beach Boys’ concert held in the 50,000-seat spectator bowl in 1990.
It was a slow demise, one that now threatens a sport that would have no Canadian facility outside of Whistler should Calgary’s top jumps get bulldozed or mothballed.
“It’s sad,” said Mr. Bulau, who finished seventh in the 1988 large hill event and is a member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.
“The location was outstanding for the spectators. [The jumpers] were definitely exposed to the north-westerly winds but it was a facility we needed. I know the Whistler hills are not summer-ized [with the jumping and landing surface covered in plastic]. They can’t do any summer training there.”
Two of the small jumps at the Calgary park are used year-round and that has allowed Calgary to build a grassroots program for young jumpers, including girls since women’s ski jumping was added to the Olympic lineup in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Without a Calgary training/competition venue, the prevailing mood is that the future of the sport in Canada will dim decidedly.