Calgary's legacy Olympic Oval needs some TLC for potential 2026 Winter Games

Calgary may bid to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, and is expected to pitch its existing athletic venues, many of which were built when the city hosted the Games in 1988.

Upgrades to ice slab, seating would boost already popular, world-class skating venue

Long-track speed skater Marsha Hudey, right, skates with her teammates at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. The ice is popular among athletes. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

Speed skaters of all stripes love to train and compete on fast Calgary ice, but the city's prized Olympic Oval will need some work if it's to be a reliable facility for the Winter Games again.

Calgary may bid to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, and is expected to pitch its existing athletic venues, many of which were built when the city hosted the games in 1988.

The Olympic Oval is still widely used and enjoyed by athletes but ended its season early this year. Several major events were cancelled due to issues with the ice plant.

The Olympic flame burns at Calgary's Olympic Oval. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Mechanical equipment needs replacing, like water heaters, compressor and condensers. The slab, which the ice is built on, is a concrete pad with cooling pipes in it that keep the slab the right temperature.

It still works well but is only a decade away from the end of its life span, when it hits 40 years old. By 2026, that slab will be just about done.

"We're talking in the area of $5 million," oval director Yves Hamelin said, pulling out a binder of financials.

"More or less, what we're planning to do is develop one major project that will replace the whole thing and start from scratch: start with brand new equipment, brand new slab, brand new grind.

"And then we're good to go for 25 years."

The Olympic Oval is at the University of Calgary. (Google Maps)

The international skating venue was considered revolutionary when built in the 1980s, as the first covered oval in North America.

Today, it's considered the second fastest ice in the world. Salt Lake City comes first, but more than 200 athletes trained at the University of Calgary campus facility in the past year.

"There's no question within Canada, this is the place to come and train because you have year-round ice, you have year-round perfect ice," four-time Olympic long-track skater Kristina Groves said. "But internationally everyone loves to come and race in Calgary."

Long-track speed skater Marsha Hudey trains at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

Graves, who is now retired from the sport, said athletes have to change how they skate because the ice is so smooth. The altitude, dryness and quality of ice technicians all result in happy athletes and good scores, she said.

"You might see a lot tighter finishing times just because ... you get a bit of free speed," she said.

The higher altitude reduces air pressure and so cuts drag for athletes. The difference can be so stark, different records are kept for races skated on so-called lowland and highland tracks.

Speed skater Denny Morrison, right, takes a break during a training session at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

So while that ice may look attractive on the pages of a Calgary bid, its infrastructure does need replacing. On top of that, the oval doesn't have seating capacity and room for media that can compare to this year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The oval viewing area seats fewer than 3,600 people, and they're only on one side of the oval, not wrapping around the rink like modern facilities. In 1988, it sat 6,500 with temporary bleachers installed.

In comparison, the oval in South Korea could pack in 12,000 people. But it did come with a dazzling $150-million price tag.

There's also concern because the long-track competitions generally run all but three days of the 16-day Winter Games. So that leaves little room in Calgary for short-track and figuring-skating events.

The venue that accommodated those in 1988 was on the Stampede grounds, but the Corral is too old to host such large events now. The Stampede, which controls the arena, plans to demolish the Corral if the yet-to-be-determined expansion of the nearby BMO Centre goes ahead.

The International Olympic Committee has said it's open to relaxing rules, for example around seating, to allow cities to recycle venues, giving Calgary's potential bid a viable element, even if the Olympic Oval needs some upgrades.

Hear more from CBC's visit to Calgary's Olympic Oval:

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.