Calgary officials optimistic about Olympics despite lack of snow

Several deer were browsing on the grass toward the top of the Olympic women's downhill ski run here a few weeks ago. Perhaps they are still there - still eating grass. The site of the 1988 Winter Olympic Alpine courses only opened for public skiing Saturday, and the slippery stuff is still in such short supply that some runs remain closed.

``We don't have as much snow as we would like,'' notes an Olympic spokeswoman, Susan Bloch-Nevitte.

The Mount Allan location of the Alpine events has been one of many controversies surrounding the $1 billion (Canadian; US $760 million) Winter Games that now show promise of being a great success.

``There's only man-made slush on Olympic slopes,'' noted the headline of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail article. The story speculated about the possibility of skiing events being canceled by lack of snow or a warm wind, called a chinook, that sometimes sweeps the slopes here in midwinter. But there are two months to go before the games (Feb. 13-28), and as Bloch-Nevitte puts it: ``Old woman winter can't hold out so long. There is no reason for great anxiety about it [adequate snow].''

As long as it gets colder, the Olympics will have plenty of artificial snow, if not that of the natural variety. According to the experts, many skiers prefer artificial snow, because of its consistency and granular structure. And most other events are either indoors in Calgary or on refrigerated facilities (such as the bobsled and luge).

Despite the potential snow problems, ticket sales have been going well. About 1.4 million tickets to the dozens of events have already been sold, more than for any previous Winter Games. Telephone orders for the remaining 500,000 tickets, mostly for outdoor events, have been taken since late November.

Tickets for the most popular events, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, figure and speed skating, and the final rounds of the ice hockey competition have been long gone. Some 114,000 spectators a day are expected, plus 5,000 media representatives. Another 1.5 billion around the world could watch it on television.

In Calgary, a city of 640,000 that is normally a 70-minute drive to the east of here, the lodging industry has geared up for at least 150,000 visitors for the games, including the athletes from 58 nations. The official Olympic travel agency in the United States, Olsen Travelworld, still has packages that include charter flight, hotel in Calgary or Banff, and tickets to events.

The games have provided an occasion for city, provincial, and federal governments to build permanent recreational facilities in a region where winter usually lasts four or five months. Altogether about $304 million (US) has been spent on the Saddledome (for hockey and figure skating) that seats 17,000; the Olympic Oval (an indoor speed skating facility seating 4,000) at the University of Calgary; upgrading of McMahon Stadium (for the opening and closing ceremonies); Canada Olympic Park (for ski jumping, bobsled, and luge); the Canmore Nordic Centre (cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, and biathalon); and the facilities at Mount Allan.

All these facilities were completed by September.

Operating costs will amount to another $380 million or so in terms of US dollars, making these Winter Games the most expensive ever in that department. But these costs are to a large extent offset by TV rights sold to the American Broadcasting Companies for $309 million. Ticket sales of about $32 million (US) and other revenues could even leave a surplus, to be divided between the Canadian Olympic Association and the Calgary Olympic Development Association.

Any event of this sort seems to act like a magnet for controversy.

The Lubicon Lake Indians have urged a boycott of the games and a museum exhibition of native artifacts which is part of the accompanying arts festival as a means for publicizing their lands claim in the north of the province.

One official formally in charge of marketing tickets in the United States has been accused of ticket fraud. His trial is expected to come up after the games.

There have also been squabbles as to whether enough tickets have been allocated Albertans for the popular contests.

The Canadian Olympic Association and the Calgary Olympic Organizing Committee have been busy policing the name and symbols of the games. They even briefly tried to stop a national magazine, Maclean's, from publishing a special issue on the games in January.

As for Mount Allan, weather records show that natural snowfall on its slopes is unreliable. It was chosen over Banff, Lake Louise, or another more distant site because the International Olympic Committee insisted on the downhill ski slopes being reasonably close to the geographic heart of the games, Calgary, and because the government wanted to develop Mount Allan as another permanent skiing facility for Calgarians and others.

Meanwhile, the Olympic torch has started its 10,800-mile trek to Calgary. It began Nov. 17 in St. John's, Newfoundland, after the flame was flown in from Athens. Two former Olympians, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott-King and race-walker Ferd Hayward, shared the honor of carrying the torch down Signal Hill.

About 6,000 runners were selected from 6 million applications from Canadians to carry the torch.

``It is a public relations man's dream,'' says Terry Steward, manager of the games' information services.

By coincidence, three runners came from the same family. Another runner is 100 years old. Other runners include cowboys, Indians, Inuit, and people from all walks of life. On some stretches in the far north the torch will be transported in a snowmobile after arriving by airplane via a miner's lamp.

Even during rehearsals of the run, the passage of the torch brought tears to the eyes of some onlookers, says Steward. That's one reason he's confident the games will be a success.

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