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Calgary mulls changes to Olympic plan after IOC raises concern about ski venue

Skiers ride a chair lift under blue skies and freshly fallen snow in Lake Louise, Alberta on Nov. 28, 2011. Representatives from the International Olympic Committee are worried about Calgary’s plan to host alpine speed events at Lake Louise Ski Resort.

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

Calgary is considering major changes to its Olympic blueprint for a series of skiing events as part of its potential bid for the 2026 Winter Games after the international governing body raised concerns about one of the city's proposed sporting venues.

Representatives from the International Olympic Committee are worried about Calgary's plan to host alpine speed events at Lake Louise Ski Resort, which is in Banff National Park, according to the city's point person on the project.

IOC officials visited Alberta last week to review plans for proposed venues and to try to find ways to reduce costs. The IOC is doing the same with other potential host cities.

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Canada limits activity in its national parks and that may stymie Calgary's current plan for Lake Louise, which is a privately controlled resort that must abide by government restrictions.

Canada's political leaders, therefore, will have to determine whether they would allow tens of thousands of people as well as infrastructure into national parks to host the Olympics and other mega-events.

The debate would centre on trade-offs, such as the environmental effects and the footprint of development.

This red flag comes just weeks before Calgary expects the federal and provincial governments to decide whether they will help pay for the bidding process, and two months before the city must declare whether it intends to bid. The city estimates it will cost between $25-million and $30-million to bid for the Games.

Local officials are in the midst of reworking Calgary's Olympic strategy and need to lower the estimated $4.6-billion price to get skeptics on board.

One option under consideration is smaller venues, but that comes with risks such as the potential for lower ticket revenue and a less competitive bid.

"There is a concern with our alpine speed events that we're proposing to host at Lake Louise," Kyle Ripley, Calgary's point person on the Olympic project, told reporters on Tuesday.

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"Certainly the ski hill hosts World Cups annually and it does so successfully. The overlay for hosting Olympic Games is substantially larger than that of a World Cup," Ripley added.

"The venue has the capacity to accommodate the overlay, but we need to have a philosophical conversation as Albertans, as Canadians, if that venue is appropriate for an Olympic event in the national park."

Overlay refers to elements such as athlete areas, spectator space, and media and broadcast centres, according to Calgary's communications department.

"If we determine that it is not [appropriate to host events at Lake Louise], we have an alternate opportunity to host these same events at Nakiska," Mr. Ripley said as he briefed reporters on the IOC's visit.

Parks Canada told The Globe it had not received a formal proposal from Calgary about using Lake Louise. "Any proposal would have to be considered in the context of Parks Canada's commitment to ecological integrity as well as any applicable federal legislation and policies," said spokeswoman Lesley Matheson.

"Without a proposal, Parks Canada is not in a position to make any judgements about whether or not this event could occur at the Lake Louise ski area."

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Nakiska Ski Area, which is inside the Alberta Parks system, is a smaller resort built for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

It hosted alpine speed events that year, and race teams from around the world train at this privately controlled resort. Nakiska is already slated to host six Olympic events, according to Calgary's original master plan.

The Calgary Bid Exploration Committee, the outside study group that assembled the plan city bureaucrats are now reconsidering, previously expressed concern about Nakiska's ability to host alpine speed events.

The committee, in its report to council, determined Nakiska "is not a preferred venue option due in part to negative [International Ski Federation] perceptions about the course quality following the 1988 Games."

Improving Nakiska's course would require "more significant and costly upgrades," compared with Lake Louise, CBEC said.

The IOC, however, has since said it is willing to relax its standards to lower costs for potential bidders. That is, in part, why the IOC is touring the globe to meet with potential Olympic bidders.

Still, venue shuffles could create fresh logistical problems. CBEC's plans for Nakiska, for example, assumed it would likely need three hours between events for spectators to arrive and clear out. Should Nakiska host the alpine speed events, other sports may need a new home so the venue is not overloaded.

Neither the IOC nor the International Ski Federation returned requests for comment prior to deadline.

A spokesman for Lake Louise said the resort would "more than happy" to join a "philosophical conversation" about its potential role in the 2026 Olympics.

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