Frank King, one of the architects of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, died Wednesday of a heart attack while training for a seniors running event. For Mr. King, who was 81, sports was more than a business or a way to garner fame, it was his passion.
It was Mr. King, along with fellow Calgarian Bill Niven, who first took on the monumental task of pursuing the 1988 Winter Games. Mr. King was named the CEO of Calgary’s Olympic organizing committee, which ultimately transformed the city into a sports centre for national and international events and training.
“He was cool under pressure and he had a vision for sports,” said Murray Sigler, the CEO of Sport Calgary and a friend of Mr. King’s, who saw him earlier this week running laps at the Glencoe Club. “He was also very modest and a down-to-earth unpretentious guy. He and Bob Niven were a great team.”
Mr. King and Mr. Niven were members of the Calgary Booster Club in 1978 when the club president asked if anyone was interested in bringing a Winter Olympics to the city.
“Frank and I just sort of smiled at one another and put up our hands and that was the beginning of it all,” Mr. Niven told The Canadian Press.
The Olympic Oval, the Saddledome, Canada Olympic Park and the Canmore Nordic Centre in Canmore, Alta., are still used 30 years later. Endowment funds Mr. King helped set aside paid for upkeep and upgrades of the venues, which continue to host regular World Cup and world championships in winter sport.
The ’88 legacy is the foundation upon which Calgary is considering a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.
Last year, The Globe and Mail asked Mr. King what advice he had for the Calgary business community and politicians interested in landing another Winter Olympics. He took a few seconds to think, then replied: “You have to be ready to take criticism from people and you don’t need to pay attention to that because they simply don’t know what we know. That’s the thing you have to live with up until the Games themselves.”
The criticism may have come early for Mr. King, but with his astuteness and leadership he helped make the 1988 Games so successful that International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch called the event “the best Winter Olympic Games ever organized.”
“There were all kinds of issues before the Games – lots of pressure and people always second guessing,” Mr. Sigler said. “But it all came around once the Games began. And then to be called the best Winter Olympics ever, that made it special.”
Born in 1936 in Redcliff, Alta., Mr. King attended the University of Alberta, where he completed a degree in chemical engineering in 1958. He later became a senior vice-president of manufacturing for Turbo Resources and kept that position while he chaired Calgary’s bid committee.
“He was tremendous with people,” said Mr. Niven, who was the CEO of the bid committee. “He was very kind. He had a great sense of humour. He was a wonderful leader, but his focus was relationships. He was very, very good at them.
“That’s probably, as much as anything, [what] contributed to Calgary winning the games. Frank built up trust in people.”
Calgary was an oil town with a population of half a million people in 1978. A Canadian city had never hosted a Winter Olympics before. A Calgary bid had to overcome the reputation of the money-losing 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.
But a bigger impediment to a successful Calgary bid was Canada joining a boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
Mr. King and Mr. Niven knew IOC votes from Soviet bloc countries would go against Calgary because of that when it came time to vote in Baden-Baden, West Germany, in 1981.
“We tried to make it more an answer to what the IOC always wants,” Mr. King says in the Telus documentary Secret Calgary: Behind the Bid.
“They want the world to be able to have their children, and their families and whatnot grow up playing sports. We went to make sure every IOC member knew we had that problem solved.”
Calgary beat out Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and Falun, Switzerland, for the ’88 games.
Calgary’s Games were the first to run 16 days instead of 12, the first to pull in a large television contract – US$309-million from ABC – that ultimately made the Games profitable, and set a new standard in volunteerism.
The official number of volunteers at the Calgary Games was 10,000, but Niven estimates more than twice that number donated their time to the event in some way.
“It’s one of those things where it invades you,” Mr. King says in the documentary. “You’re standing there saying, ‘Wow, this is such a meaningful thing for the world and here it is right in front of us.’ We worked hard for this.”
Mr. King was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1988 and received the Olympic Order in Gold from the IOC that same year. He served as a director for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
“This is truly a very sad day. Frank was as good a man as there is,” John Furlong, who led the Vancouver organizing committee, said in a statement. “A great Canadian, and a terrific friend and mentor.
“His vision and goodwill elevated the standard by which the world now measures the success of Olympic and Paralympic Games and their legacies.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley tweeted Thursday that “when Frank King brought the 88 Olympics to Calgary, he brought the world to Alberta and inspired generations of Canadian athletes. His many contributions to the country, our province and #yyc live on.”
The Frank King Day Lodge sits at the foot of the ski hill at Canada Olympic Park, where ski jumping and sliding sports were held in ’88.
“He was so proud of the ’88 Games and all the effort that everybody put into it,” Mr. Niven said. “He was very proud of it and justifiably so.”
After the Calgary Games, he was president of Turbo Resources from 1992 to 1993 and president of Cambridge Environmental Systems from 1993 to 1996.
Mr. King leaves his wife, Jeanette, three children and. He was predeceased by a daughter, Diane, who died of cancer in 2003.
With a report from Allan Maki of The Globe and Mail