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OlympicsField of Play: Calgary Olympics the greatest ever?

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 | 03:11 PM

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East German figure skating queen Katarina Witt was one of the indelible characters of the 1988 Winter Games. (Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images) East German figure skating queen Katarina Witt was one of the indelible characters of the 1988 Winter Games. (Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images)

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It's been 25 years since the wonder of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Hard to fathom, but they survive as arguably the greatest Winter Games of all time. The cast of characters is unrivaled and the fame of those athletes, in many cases, transcended sport.
It's been 25 years since the wonder of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Hard to fathom, but they survive as arguably the greatest Winter Games of all time.

The cast of characters is unrivaled and the fame of those athletes, in many cases, transcended sport.

A number of the champions from Calgary remain iconic figures and still have a luster in spite of the passage of time.

Think of it: Alpine skiing boasted the hot-blooded Alberto "La Bomba" Tomba of Italy. He won double gold by taking the technical events, the giant slalom and the slalom.

But perhaps more intriguing was the fact that his passion ran wild for champion figure skater Katarina Witt of East Germany, who performed seductively to Georges Bizet's Carmen on the way to capturing a gold medal over her Carmen skating rival Debi Thomas of the United States.

"In 1988 the stars shone bright," says Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning, who made his first of three Olympic appearances in Calgary. "Tomba was chasing Katarina and trying to charm her. It felt so very strange to just get in my car and drive a few hours to the Olympics when in my head I always thought of the Olympics as being in some far-off snow-driven land."

There were the figure skating Brians -- Boitano and Orser -- who battled at the Olympic Saddledome. It was compelling stuff and the resulting drama went beyond who won and who lost.

In the end it was sport that was victorious.

"All athletes were welcomed and celebrated," says Tracy Wilson, who won an ice dance bronze medal with her partner Rob McCall. "The enthusiasm and warmth of the audiences and fans in Calgary made every one of us athletes believe that we were part of something much bigger than our event and our personal endeavours."

Last great Soviet hockey team

There was Matti Nykanen, the Flying Finn, who became the first ski jumper in Olympic history to capture three gold medals. But it was the unlikely Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, a British plasterer, who won so many hearts and ended up stealing the show.

The Jamaican bobsleigh team rocked Calgary having partially financed their journey by selling T-shirts and reggae records. It was a magical story.

The last of the great Soviet hockey teams triumphed, featuring a lineup including Slava Fetisov, Igor Larianov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov and Alexander Mogilny. All of them were on the cusp of becoming NHL stars.

And to put a capper on things there was the tiny figure skater Elizabeth Manley of Ottawa, who gave Calgary a silver lining. She unexpectedly surpassed Debi Thomas with a brilliant performance to find herself just behind Katarina Witt on the podium. She celebrated with that beautiful white Stetson, an image which endures to this day.

"I for one was overcome by gratitude at having the opportunity to compete at home in an Olympics," says Tracy Wilson. "That and I felt the privilege of being Canadian."

There were other stars, including Swiss downhill ace Pirmin Zurbriggen and the legendary double gold medallist Gunde Svan, a Swedish cross-country skier. Everyone at the speed skating oval mourned for American favourite Dan Jansen, who fell in the sprint after learning of the death of his sister on the morning of the race.

There was so much personality to Calgary, and although Canadian athletes like Karen Percy and Gaetan Boucher garnered much of the attention, they were not the only story. 

"I have been to two Olympics since Calgary and nothing compares to the intensity of that one for me," says Browning. "Somehow the world felt smaller and our attention more focused as people around the planet were falling in love with athletes."

The Calgary Games are a quarter of a century gone. Their legacy has been the flourishing of a Canadian winter sports system.  Facilities remain intact and well employed and the reputation of Calgary as an "Olympic City" endures.

But on this 25th anniversary it's quite clear that at these blockbuster Olympics, Canadians developed a lasting affection with our winter fields of play and the athletes from around the globe who brought them to life in the Stampede City.

This Saturday on Sports Weekend

This week's show on CBC Television (and streaming on CBCSports.ca) features the Intact Insurance Speed Skating Series from Hamar, Norway. Steve Armitage and Kristina Groves call the World Allround Championships at 2 p.m. ET. 

That's followed by the men's downhill from Garmisch, Germany at 3 p.m. ET. Erik Guay of Canada won his world championship there two years ago and he's gunning for a 20th career podium finish, which would tie him with Crazy Canuck Steve Podborski.  Rob Snoek and Olympic champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner have the play-by-play.

At 4 p.m. ET, it's the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships from Osaka, Japan.  On Saturday, Brenda Irving, Tracy Wilson and Kurt Browning call the men's and pairs finals.

On Sunday at 2 p.m. local time we'll feature the ladies and the ice dance.

Scott Russell is the host of CBC's Sports Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay.


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