Opinions split on best alpine ski hill for potential 2026 Calgary Winter Olympics

No Olympic bid has been submitted yet but already opinions are split: would Nakiska or Lake Louise be more appropriate to host ski events?

Two Rocky Mountain resorts are promising but there are environmental and cost concerns

Jan Sekerak is the general manager of Nakiska Ski Area, a venue being considered for a 2026 Winter Olympics bid. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Calgary 2026 Winter Games bid debate is where the alpine ski events would take place.

Alberta has incredible ski hills in the Rocky Mountains, many of which are protected within national parks. The stark ridges and deep forests contain sensitive ecological areas, and provide freshwater for much of the province and a home for many animals species.

As the city explores submitting a bid for a 2026 Olympic Games, the debate continues over how to use facilities leftover from the 1988 Olympics and other sporting events, like World Cups.

The International Olympic Committee has encouraged reusing venues to save money and reduce environmental impact, but the upgrades and suitability of each isn't always ideal.

Talks are ongoing and no bid has been submitted, but right now, opinions are split: would Nakiska or Lake Louise be the better choice?

"Lake Louise is better set up to be an alpine venue," Olympic downhill skier Kelly VanderBeek said. "Nakiska is fabulous. They've been holding ski cross events since 2012."

Canada's Olympic athletes participate in the opening ceremonies at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. (Canadian Press )

At issue is the athlete's experience, spectator seating, broadcasting requirements and environmental impacts.

Sporting events held within Banff National Park, home to Lake Louise, are tightly regulated by the federal government, though several major ones happen each year.

Since 1980, top athletes visit Lake Louise Ski Resort to compete in World Cups and other alpine ski races. The consistent pitch and a very reliable weather record — lots of snow and cold temperatures — makes the site popular for athletes.

Kelly VanderBeek competed in downhill skiing at the 2006 Winter Olympics. She has broadcasted from many others as a commentator. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

But that didn't win the argument to hold Winter Olympics there in past years. Calgary put in failed bids in 1964, 1968 and 1972, and one of the key sticking points had been where to host the alpine events.

Lake Louise was struck as a venue in the successful 1988 bid. Instead, the alpine ski events were shuffled to Mount Allan, now known as Nakiska, which is outside the national park.

It seemed like a good compromise, but then mild weather, exacerbated by a Chinook, delayed events.

'Destruction of Banff Park'

Critics like park advocate Harvey Locke argue the environment should be the main priority when choosing a location.

Locke is a multi-generation Banff resident and his family long has been involved with skiing. His father was a ski guide before there were lifts, and his grandfather helped start skiing at Sunshine Village.

Back in 1988, Locke was part of the vocal movement to keep the Olympics out of national parks — and Lake Louise, in particular.

"The difference between the World Cup race and the Winter Olympics is the difference between the High River chuck wagon races and the Calgary Stampede," Locke said.

"This is the one-way-rachet of the destruction of Banff Park. 'I'm here now, you might as well let everything in here now.' And this park is already bursting at the seams."

Harvey Locke is an advocate for protecting Canada's national parks. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

Last year, Banff National Park drew a record number of tourists, and has launched a plan to boost attendance further, especially in the winter season.

A preliminary report by the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee estimates roughly 700 athlete and officials would attend alpine skiing events in 2026, with a total of about 2,300 attending all the venues in the mountains.

Capacity for the resort is about 6,500, and may be increased to 9,500, the report said. The committee identified upgrades to courses and utilities would amount to roughly $21 million.

'Highest standards'

For ski events at Lake Louise, normally a few thousand attend to watch, ski resort spokesperson Dan Markham said.

Markham believes the Olympics wouldn't be that much of a stretch from the World Cup, and said the resort could accommodate additional viewers and broadcasters with temporary seating and on-site buildings.

"To put the event on at another facility would probably require more construction, more damage to the environment than using existing facilities that are already in place," Markham said in an interview.

"I couldn't speculate what the risks would be. I know that operating a business within a national park, we're constantly reaching for the highest standards of ecological integrity in everything that we do."

The view from the hotel at Lake Louise Ski Resort. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Markham said he understood any formal request to use Lake Louise for a potential Winter Olympics would go through an environmental assessment with Parks Canada.

Parks Canada, which manages and regulates the national parks, declined an interview but emailed a statement on Tuesday.

It said it has answered questions from the City of Calgary but hasn't received a formal application to hold events in Banff National Park. Until such an application is received, the department won't speculate on whether it would be approved.

"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," spokesperson Lesley Matheson said in the statement.

VanderBeek, who spent 13 years on Canada's national team, hopes Lake Louise can work as a venue as it is more dramatic than Nakiska.

Now a CBC Sports commentator, she said the shorter Nakiska mountain run means athletes have to swing across it more frequently, slowing them down.

'Don't limit the venue'

Even in the 1988 Olympics, athletes complained Nakiska wasn't quite as challenging as they would have liked, as the course started out quite steep but flattened out to be slow in the latter half.

Lake Louise, on the other hand, has a naturally long mountain slope.

"When we have a venue that's holding World Cups, I think, limit the crowds, limit the buses that come in," VanderBeek said. "Don't limit the venue, don't limit the success of an event from the purist standpoint for the athletes."

Lake Louise was the preferred venue by the preliminary bid committee for its established infrastructure and "more optimal average weather conditions."

The committee noted some worry hosting ski and snowboard cross, and snowboard parallel giant slalom events would require complex site development in the remote Lake Louise location, not as ideally placed as that of Nakiska.

The Nakiska Ski Area is a popular location for ski events. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

Nakiska is closer to the city and could work, albeit with a bit of creativity. It's the national training centre for Alpine Canada, and it may need only a few upgrades and renovations.

The track itself qualified for the vertical drop required for all three race courses, slalom, GS and downhill. For giant slalom and slalom, very little would need to be done to make a respectable venue.

The hallmark event, downhill, is still the main hang up.

"Nakiska downhill was definitely not the toughest one, not the longest one, but definitely very good for the Olympics," said general manager Jan Sekerak, who started at the resort just after the 1988 Games.

"Whatever champion you talk to, they will recognize that, 'Yes, you know what, I had to work my you-know-what off to get to the podium there — and the best guy won.'"

Canada's Kelsey Serwa finished in fourth place in women's ski cross at a World Cup event at Nakiska in January. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Sekerak believes he could make an exciting race, with a few modifications. Standards also have changed since 1988, making race trails wider for safety.

"It will definitely not be the most challenging one, but was Pyeongchang the most challenging one? Was Sapporo the most challenging one?" he said.

"The answer is no and no. Let the best guy win even on not-the-most-challenging one but on the day of the race."

No decision has been made, and discussions continue.

One thing is for certain: the bid exploration committee will have a challenge navigating the course in choosing an alpine ski event venue.

  • Hear more from the Calgary Eyeopener's visit to Nakiska Ski Resort:
The Eyeopener's Paul Karchut continues his series with a look at the controversial question of where Calgary might host alpine events in a future Olympics. 6:48

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article said Harvey Locke's father helped start skiing Sunshine Village. In fact, Locke said his grandfather did.
    May 16, 2018 10:57 AM MT