Ever since the late 1950s, the citizens of Calgary have been interested in bringing the Olympic Winter Games to the base of the Canadian Rockies. Tomorrow, the dream becomes a reality as the 15th edition of the long-john Olympics gets under way, launching a 16-day extravaganza of skiing, skating, sledding, and ski jumpi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-n-g. Never in the history of these winter extravaganzas has the chill of victory and the agony of frozen feet had such a long run. The program has been lengthened to permit three weekends of television coverage, and also to accommodate an ambitious slate of events that will include freestyle skiing, short-track speed skating, curling, and disabled skiing exhibitions.
A frontier police outpost in 1875, today Calgary is the oil and gas capital of Canada. But it still retains a cowtown image, with its annual summer Stampede, a festival of rodeos, parades, and entertainment.
Cowboy boots may be the footwear of choice at these Olympics, and if anyone should forget the heritage of the place, a United States-vs.-Canada rodeo will be a scheduled attraction during the second week of the Games.
The main focus, however, will be on the beauty, grace, and daring of nearly 1,800 winter athletes from a record 57 nations. As usual, many of the best will come from the Soviet Union and East Germany, a duo that won a lion's share of the medals in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984. But the other extreme will be represented, too, by athletes who exhibit more high-spirited moxie than mastery.
The competitors from Fiji, Puerto Rico, Guam, Jamaica, and other warm-weather countries may straggle to the finish line, but their presence gives renewed meaning to the Olympic creed, as first enunciated by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games:
``The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.''
This can even apply to royalty, as it does to Prince Albert of Monaco, who will make his debut in major international bobsledding competition here at Canada Olympic Park, a new winter sports complex 15 minutes west of town.
Besides the demonic refrigerated chute that serves as Canada's first combined bobsled and luge run, the park contains 70- and 90-meter ski jumps, which sit in the foothills like soaring concrete sculptures.
A year ago, during a competition to try out these jumps, Canada's Horst Bulau discovered there wasn't enough room at the bottom, and ended up in the parking lot, uninjured, after he landed. His adventure helped organizers discover a correctable flaw in their planning. The outrun area has since been enlarged.
Elsewhere, the Olympics Committee Olympiques (OCO '88), the bilingually named local organizing group, has had to quell in-house spats and weather a scandalous ticket-selling storm, which found the original ticket manager fired for trying to line his pocket with cash sales in the United States.
One uncontrollable adversary could be the climate, with its Chinook winds, which can drop down from the Rockies and bring unseasonably warm temperatures.
There was an almost embarrassing lack of snow during some of last year's tuneup competitions. More natural flakes are on the ground now, and extensive snowmaking equipment ensures adequate coverage on Nakiska's Alpine slopes at Mt. Allan and the cross-country trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Both venues are about 50 miles west on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Weather, of course, won't be a factor at the Saddledome, the main hockey and figure skating arena, which was built downtown in 1983 and houses the National Hockey League's Calgary Flames. Nor will speed skaters have to contend with the elements, since these racers will compete indoors for the first time on a fully enclosed 400-meter oval, built on the University of Calgary campus. The absence of headwinds is expected to encourage world-record efforts. It could be an exciting place to be, especially when Canada's own Gaeten Boucher (two golds and a bronze in 1984) takes to the track.
Boucher is one of the host country's top medal hopes, and surely those wearing the maple leaf stand to benefit from highly vocal crowd support, just as the Americans did in 1980 at Lake Placid.
What would really delight Canadians would be a gold medal in ice hockey, something absent from the national trophy case since 1952. The current team is championship caliber, judging by its December victory over an increasingly vulnerable Soviet squad at Moscow's Izvestia tournament.
Alpine skiers Laurie Graham and Rob Boyd are also ready to uphold the ``crazy Canuck'' reputation in the downhill events, and a contingent of home-grown figure-skating talent is led by Brian Orser, reigning world champion.
Orser, however, has his work cut out for him going against American Brian Boitano in one of the most eagerly anticipated showdowns of the entire Games. The technically brilliant Boitano, who once considered trying a history-making quadruple jump here, was the 1986 world champion. But Orser is the high man on the totem pole now, and some observers figure the 1984 silver medalist deserves an Olympic promotion. It may all depend on who wobbles or slips in this battle of steel-edged concentration.
A similar scenario exists among the women, where American Debi Thomas has pulled out all the stops (even getting help from ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov) to try to overtake East Germany's Katarina Witt, the defending Olympic gold medalist and head-turning beauty.
``I think for Katarina to lose, she must fall down a few times,'' says Carlo Fassi, the venerable coach of former Olympic champion Peggy Fleming and current mentor of American contenders Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy.
On the ski slopes, where the newest Olympic fashion will be checkered-stripe body suits, the Swiss are expected to have a field day. Among the men, Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen's chief competition may come from Italy's flamboyant Alberto Tomba, or ``Tomba la bomba,'' as his fans call him. Among the women, if one Swiss miss doesn't win, another one probably will, with Michela Figini, Maria Walliser, and Vreni Schneider the names to watch.
Alpiners, incidentally, need no longer pine for more races, since combined (downhill and giant slalom) and super giant slalom events have been added.
When it comes to the Soap Box Derby of the Olympics (bobsledding and luge) and Nordic skiing (cross-country, jumping, Nordic combined, and biathlon) the names on the leader board will be almost exclusively European.
For spectators and TV viewers, however, the main lure of the Winter Games lies not so much in the familiarity of the participants, but in the pageantry and stimulating unfamiliarity of what occurs.
For North Americans at least, it's often a learn-as-you-watch spectacle of speed, beauty, and circuslike stunts. ABC, which has paid $309 million for the US rights, obviously figures it can hook the public with its 90 hours of coverage, and has gone to great lengths with miniature cameras, supersensitive microphones, and other technological ploys to capture and hold viewers.
The network is also in a much better position to carry events live than it was four years ago, when they were often taped because of the time difference in Yugoslavia.
The total price tag for Canada's first Winter Olympics is in the neighborhood of $850 million. Nearly half of this is being shared by city, provincial, and federal governments, with the rest coming from corporate sponsors, ticket sales, and television rights.
The costs, of course, have caused some uneasiness among those who remember the financial millstone Montreal's Olympics left after the 1976 summer Games. But the OCO is so flushed with optimism that it has projected a surplus of $30 million or more.
For the time being, however, folks in Canada's youngest major city (pop. 625,000) are more interested in finish lines than bottom lines. The Olympic torch has traversed the country, with citizens transporting it on foot and via dog sled and snowmobile. Now everybody is just eager to light the Olympic flame in McMahon Stadium and get on with a mercury-dipping sports stampede.
Winter Olympics: a half-century of highlights 1924 - Chamonix, France
Norway and Finland were the big winners of the inaugural Winter Games, attended by 16 countries. American speed skater Charles Jewtraw won the very first gold medal. The Toronto Granites, representing Canada, made a shambles of the hockey competition, outscoring five opponents 110 goals to 3. 1928 - St. Moritz, Switzerland
Sonja Henie, 15, collected the first of three successive women's skating titles, and Canada continued to roll along in hockey, scoring 38 goals to none for the opposition. Unseasonably warm weather visited these Games, just as it would others that followed. 1932 - Lake Placid, N.Y.
New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt helped welcome the world's sports community to the Adirondacks, but his wife, Eleanor, may have stolen the show by taking a bobsled ride. For the first and last time, the United States led the overall medal standings. The Americans also played Canada to a three-overtime draw in hockey, although the visitors won the gold on the basis of overall goals-against average. 1936 - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
A record 28 countries and 755 athletes participated before a half-million spectators. Alpine skiing was added to the program and became an immediate hit, especially when Germany's own Christel Cranz won the women's slalom by a whopping 11.3 seconds. Sonja Henie collected her third skating gold and turned to a movie career. Canada's hockey dynasty was finally ended, ironically by a group of Anglo-Canadians skating for Britain. 1948 - St. Moritz
Because of World War II, these were the first Winter Games in 12 years. Norway's Birger Rudd, the Olympic ski-jumping champion in 1932 and '36 and a concentration camp prisoner during the war, returned to action and captured a silver medal at age 37. Figure skater Barbara Ann Scott won Canada's first non-hockey gold. 1952 - Oslo
The only Winter Games held in a Nordic country pointed up the need for weight limits in bobsledding, where the winning German team (East and West competed together) averaged 250 pounds a man, an obvious advantage in this gravity-assisted sport. American Richard (Dick) Button won his second straight men's crown.
1956 - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
The Soviet Union, in its first Winter Olympics, collected an unmatched total of 16 medals. Toni Sailer, an Austrian plumber, swept all three men's Alpine skiing races - the downhill, slalom, and giant slalom. The US had the golden girl and boy of skating in Tenley Albright and Hayes Jenkins. 1960 - Squaw Valley, Calif.
South Africa entered the Winter Games for the only time in history. East and West Germany couldn't agree on a mutual national anthem, so Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was played whenever either won a gold medal. In the original miracle on ice, the US hockey team upset the Soviet Union en route to the gold. 1964 - Innsbruck, Austria
Snow had to be trucked in so postponed skiing events could be completed. The Soviet Lidia Skoblikova, a female forerunner of Eric Heiden, won all four women's speed skating events. 1968 - Grenoble, France
Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy achieved a skiing grand slam with three Alpine golds, American teen-ager Peggy Fleming turned in an exquisite figure skating performance, and East and West Germany competed as separate countries for the first time. 1972 - Sapporo, Japan
The largest metropolis (about a million people) ever to host the Winter Games also became the first venue outside Europe or the US. Media members outnumbered competitors 2 to 1, making for plenty of coverage of the Austrian skier Karl Schranz's banishment for breaking the strict amateur code. 1976 - Innsbruck
Austria's own Franz Klammer roared recklessly to an unforgettable downhill skiing victory and American skater Dorothy Hamill and West German skier Rosi Mittermeier (two golds and a silver) provided the Games with two charming female champions. 1980 - Lake Placid
Americans cheered wildly as Eric Heiden won an unprecedented five speed skating golds and a bunch of college-age kids sprang a huge hockey upset of the Soviet Union. Figure skating pair Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the Heartbreak Kids of these Games, were forced to withdraw at the last minute because of an injury to Gardner. Some observers expected them to challenge the USSR's Irina Rodnina, who with partner Alexander Zaitsev, who won her third straight Olympic title. 1984 - Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
British skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean raised ice dancing to new heights with a riveting routine that was an artistic and technical masterpiece. Little-known American Bill Johnson delivered after brashly predicting victory in the men's downhill ski race, while twin teammates Phil and Steve Mahre closed out their Olympic careers with a 1-2 slalom finish on the Games' final day. Finland's Marja-Liisa Hamalainen was the most-decorated champion with three cross-country skiing golds.