Calgary success stories – 1988 Olympics: A tool for urban transformation

Calgary Tower can be seen through the Olympic rings at Olympic Plaza. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE

This is the second in a 2020 series of LiveWire columns by Richard White (a Calgary-based urban development writer), looking at past urban planning decisions that successfully shaped our city into one of the most liveable cities in the world. His work is supported by our Patreon campaign.

Globally, the Olympics is a sporting and marketing event. Locally, they’re often promoted as a development tool; to redevelop blighted neighbourhoods, to acquire new transportation infrastructure, new sports/entertainment facilities and increase the stock of affordable housing. 

A key benchmark of a successful Olympiad is how the Olympic-related facilities are used AFTER the Olympic torch is snuffed.

Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary who has studied the impact of several Olympics believes “many cities overbuild for the Olympics and then have difficulty adapting the structures for long-term use after the Olympics. However, that was not the case for Calgary in 1988.”  

Canada Olympic Park – WinSport

The WinSport  (Canada Olympic Park) website states, “Calgary’s legacy facilities have continued to play an important role in the city’s landscape and identity, with all the vital venues from 1988 still being fully utilized – except for the 90-metre ski jump tower at Canada Olympic Park, which is now the departure point for North America’s fastest zipline.”  

Since the 1988 Olympics, Canada Olympic Park has also become home to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, three mixed-use arenas a nine-acre mountain bike skills park making it a popular recreation attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Canada Olympic Park (now WinSport) and the Olympic Oval have both become centres of excellence for training Canadian winter Olympic athletes, as well as those from other countries.  At the 2018 Winter Games, of Canada’s 225-member team Games, 171 of them trained or competed at WinSport facilities, including 23 of Canada’s 29 medal winners.

Since 1988, these facilities (which are now reaching their expiry date) have hosted numerous annual world competitions that have brought positive media attention to the city. And, while it has taken 30 years, the land around Canada Olympic Park is now being developed into two mixed-use urban villages – Greenwich and Trinity Hills – with the COP as their major amenity. 

Olympic Plaza – downtown Calgary

In Hiller’s view, “Olympic Plaza is a very important legacy of the Calgary Olympics because of its role as a central city gathering place. Bounded by City Hall, Arts Commons, Convention Centre, Glenbow, Cathedral Church of the Redeemer and for many years the Central Library, the Plaza is our equivalent to a European town square.” 

The plaza has become the place for community celebrations, concerts, festivals and protests (2000 World Petroleum Congress and the 2002 G8 Summit). Hiller thinks Calgary’s Olympic Plaza works much better as a public legacy than Salt Lake City or Vancouver’s.

NW leg of Calgary’s LRT

Tuscany LRT station in northwest Calgary. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Another infrastructure legacy of Calgary’s 1988 Olympics was the construction of the NW LRT leg to link the University of Calgary and SAIT to downtown and NE and South Lines.  Together, the three lines created an LRT system having one of the largest LRT riderships in North America.  

Calgary has the highest LRT km/capita in North America, which was instrumental in fostering a downtown with one of the largest concentrations of head offices in North America and the economic engine of the city. 

Athletes’ village, U of C housing

Less visible, but just as important, was how Calgary successfully integrated the athletes’ village into the University of Calgary’s student housing, rather than simply creating a purpose-built village.  Calgary built just two new buildings (Glacier and Olympus Halls) for the Olympics adding 226 new apartments at a cost of $12 million to create a 750-bed athletes’ village. 

In Vancouver, the promise of converting two-thirds of their 1,100 athletes’ village units into affordable housing resulting in only 125 actual subsidized units.  The cost to taxpayers for Vancouver’s Olympic athletes’ village after numerous complications could be as high as $875 million.

Olympic Saddledome

Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

The Olympic Saddledome, while built for the NHL’s Calgary Flames, was an important part of Calgary winning the 1988 Olympic bid.  The Saddledome, with the downtown skyline in the background, quickly became the City’s signature postcard (even IKEA has a large photo of this image of Calgary available for purchase) for the next 30 years. 

The arena is also used extensively for other major events like figure skating, curling, concerts and circuses, enhancing the quality of life in the city for people of all ages and backgrounds. Interestingly, it is one of the few iconic Calgary buildings designed by a Calgary architect – Barry Graham.

Last Word

Hiller, in a recent CBC Calgary online piece about Calgary’s 2026 Olympic bid wrote, “hosting the Olympics was an important achievement for a city breaking out of its former status as a prairie city on the margins of power and influence in Canada.”

Indeed, Hiller thinks the decision to host the 1988 Olympics was instrumental in elevating Calgary’s status as a major North American city, providing much-needed transportation, sport, recreation and entertainment infrastructure that has served it well for 30 years.  It restored Calgary’s “Can Do!” psyche after the economic decline of the early 80s as a result of the National Energy Program.

Olympic host cities often have ambitious goals.  Most cities envision the Olympics as a means of urban transformation, though there are few success stories. 

Fortunately, Calgary is one of them.  

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