Twenty-two years after the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Canmore Nordic Centre remains a model of legacy planning for Olympic cross-country venues.
When it was built in 1986, Canmore set a new standard for nordic facilities, and when it was refurbished in 2005, the ski area redefined that standard.
In his masters’ thesis, John-Christopher Reid called the 1988 Winter Olympics “…the single most significant precedent in terms of structuring Winter Olympic legacies in North America.” Canmore has shared in that legacy.
Like Utah’s Soldier Hollow, Canmore is a stand-alone facility. But unlike any other North American Olympic venue, Canmore, located in one of Alberta’s provincial parks, is government-owned and funded.
“It’s the most outstanding venue in the world, when you look at everything from A to Z. Nobody has done anything like it,” said former Canadian and American national team coach Marty Hall.
Canmore’s road to the Olympics started in 1956, when the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA) was founded to secure the Winter Games for the city. After missing out in 1964 and 1968, Calgary was finally awarded the 1988 Games, beating Falun, Sweden and Cortina d’Ampezzo, in Italy.
CODA’s winning bid cited Bragg Creek, 60 miles southeast of Canmore, as the cross-country venue, which had “excellent terrain,” according to Bjorger Pettersen, the chief of competition for Canmore’s cross-country events.
But Don Gardner, who collaborated with Pettersen on site selection, and later, trail layout, felt that Bragg Creek was too exposed to the Chinook, a warming wind that can raise temperatures as much as fifty degrees in a few hours.
Moreover, Gardner said he thought that Bragg Creek’s location wasn’t economically viable post-Olympics, since it wasn’t near a major road, and lacked infrastructure. And when
organizers deemed the installation of a snowmaking system too expensive, CODA expanded its search for a cross country venue.
After inspecting several sites, Gardner and Pettersen felt that Canmore had the best snow retention of all the sites they inspected. Work began on the venue in 1983.
The courses there were “definitely harder than anything that came before,” said Hall, who coached the 1988 Canadian Olympic cross-country team. “Both uphill and down. Particularly up.”
The trails were well-received, Gardner said, but he also acknowledged that some people thought they were too difficult. Intended to test both fitness and technique, Gardner said that he designed the trails to challenge the top 30.
“They were designed to test great skiers…not those that would finish in 60th place,” Gardner said.
“I thought this was the way the sport was [evolving],” said Pettersen of the famously big hills. At 104 meters, one ascent in particular exceeded the maximum for a single climb. “Somehow, Bjorger talked FIS [the International Ski Federation] into leaving it,” Gardner said.
Following the Games, CODA took over management of the Olympic ski jumping, sliding, and speed skating venues. But because Canmore was located in a provincial park, the government opted to manage the venue itself, rather than turn it over to CODA. (In 2009, CODA was renamed Canadian Winter Sport Institute, or WinSport.)
“The [province’s] operations of the center addressed the community’s desire for [it] to remain a public facility as well as meeting recreational and high-performance sport needs,” said Dan Huang, a spokesman for Alberta Parks, in an e-mail.
One of the benefits of provincial management was free skiing: for the first eight years after the Olympics, visitors didn’t have to pay a fee to use Canmore’s trails.
But in the early 1990s, collapsing oil and gas prices hobbled Alberta’s economy. Facing some $20 billion in debt, the province enacted broad budget cuts—including to its parks.
“There were budget reductions throughout the Alberta Parks system. At the Canmore Nordic Centre, capital reinvestment was limited,” Huang wrote.
While Canmore still received regular maintenance, the only major upgrade following the Olympics was CODA’s construction of the Bill Warren Training Centre in 1994, which offered facilities for weight training, performance testing and recovery on-site.
By 1996, Canmore had begun charging a trail fee to help defray expenses. Today, however, its $10 trail pass is still below the market rate for a top-end cross-country ski center.
“Historically, there’s been a reluctance to have fees at market level, due to the fact that it’s a public facility,” said Mike Roycroft, Canmore’s manager.
Seeking more race starts for Canadian athletes, in 2002, Cross Country Canada (CCC) requested a spot for the country on FIS’s World Cup calendar.
According to Dave Dyer, CCC’s events planning director, one motivating factor for the bid was a presentation by athlete Beckie Scott to CCC’s executive committee and board of directors, in which she expressed her desire to compete in international events on home soil.
“We entrenched a planning principal at FIS that overseas nations would be able to hold World Cup races every second year,” Dyer said. 2005 would be the start of that cycle.
CCC solicited bids to hold World Cup events, and according to Dyer, “…Canmore was the site we thought could hold an event right off the bat.” Ultimately, Sovereign Lake, B.C. and Foothills Nordic in Calgary won the bids to host the races, and Foothills organized its event at Canmore.
As plans for the World Cups developed, the provincial government “rolled up its sleeves and
decided to look at reinvestment options in Canmore,” according to Glen Cowper, strategic development manager for the Alberta Ministry of Parks, Tourism and Recreation. By June, 2004, the province had “decided to invest, to bring Canmore up to current international standards,” he said—both for biathlon and cross-country skiing.
In just thirteen months, new competition trails were laid out to comply with current homologation rules. In addition to shorter and more spectator- and television-friendly loops, said Roycroft, acceptable climb criteria had changed significantly in the intervening sixteen years since the 1988 Olympics. The elevation profile and grade of the courses are now much different.
Gardner, one of the 1988 course designers, collaborated with John Aalberg on the changes to the trails. “The whole style is different, because of television and spectators,” Gardner said. “The courses are convoluted and back and forth. The climbs are shorter, but there are more of them.”
In addition to new trails, Canmore received a new cross-country stadium, a new snowmaking system and new wax facilities. Cowper characterized these as the minimum upgrades necessary to run the December, 2005 World Cup races.
After those events, work continued, with updated biathlon trails, a new biathlon stadium, an improved day lodge, and a paved rollerski trail added by 2008.
Thanks to the refurbishment, Canmore can now hold “simultaneous World Cup events, and still have 40 [kilometers] of trail open to the public for recreational skiing,” said Magi Scallion, Canmore’s events coordinator.
Today, Canmore is the home of both the Canadian National Ski Team, and the National Biathlon Team. CCC’s headquarters are in the Bill Warren building, and the Alberta World Cup Academy, an elite club, also makes its home in Canmore.
Athletes use the ski and rollerski trails at the venue, then can head immediately to the Bill Warren center’s recovery facilities, like hot tubs and saunas, without having to drive anywhere, Roycroft said.
“You can live in Canmore and rollerski to the Canmore Nordic Center for some rollerskiing on the rollerski loop, or use the gym. In Whistler [BC], you would have to drive roughly 15 to 20 minutes to the site to begin quality training,” said Scott Perras, a Canadian biathlete, in an e-mail. “The staff in Canmore are very good, and are getting better every year at understanding our needs.”
Canmore is also creative in extending the ski season for local athletes. 2009 was a “trial year”
for an initiative that has since been dubbed “Frozen Thunder.” Temperatures were cold enough around Canada’s Thanksgiving, in October, that the nordic center opened a limited loop with snow they had harvested and stored under sawdust over the previous summer. With its success, they expanded the program for fall 2010.
According to Roycroft, last summer “probably double” the amount of snow, compared to 2009, was set aside. The preserved snow was laid over a one-kilometer loop, and some was saved to fill on thin spots.
Securing the Future
With experience and momentum gained since 2005, Gardner said he thinks that Canmore has a bright future.
However, he said he was also concerned, generally, about the sustainability of large, high-overhead ski venues—specifically in a tough economy. He cited the Ontario provincial government’s closing of Big Thunder National Ski Training Center in 1996, following the 1995 World Championships.
“Cross-country places are going to have to fight for their existence,” Gardner said.
Roycroft said that in a future economic downturn, there wouldn’t be the pressure to de-fund here as there might be at other park facilities in Alberta. The nordic center is “considered one of the top three [park] facilities in the province,” he said.
Compared to other legacy venues supported by endowment funds, Roycroft argued, “Canmore…has probably got the most stable funding model,” noting that an endowment fund’s value can fluctuate with the stock market. Currently, approximately 35 percent of Canmore’s operating budget is funded by trail fees, with the rest coming from general tax revenue.
By funding upgrades to Canmore earlier in the decade, the province “made a commitment to FIS and the International Biathlon Union,” Roycroft said. He described Canmore as a showpiece and an “economic driver” for the city and the province—a 24-hour mountain bike race alone generates $1 million in revenue, for example.
Dyer agreed, saying that the provinces are interested in the economic impact of World Cup races, which he characterized as “brand exposure.” Still, he added, if either the federal or provincial governments decided not to support future World Cup races in Canada, “we’d have a lot of soul-searching to do.”