Olympics Winter

1988 Calgary, Canada

Canada got a crack at hosting its first Winter Olympics in 1988, and despite some unusually warm weather, the Calgary Games came through with more than their share of breathtaking performances and heartwarming - as well as heartbreaking - stories.

Canada hosts its first Winter Olympics

Fans cheer and wave flags as the Canadian delegation parades during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada. ((Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images))

The Numbers

  • Number of nations:57
  • Number of competitors: 1,428 (315 women 1,113 men)
  • Sports:10
  • Events:46
  • New events: 7 — men's and women's super giant slalom; men's and women's alpine combined; team Nordic combined; team K120 ski jumping; women's 5,000m speed skating
  • Duration of the Games: 16 days, the first Winter Olympics to extend that long
  • Location of the speed skating events: The Olympic Oval, the first indoor speed skating venue in Olympic history
  • Medals won by speed skater Christa Rothenburger of East Germany:2
  • Medals won by Rothenburger at the 1988 Summer Games: 1, in cycling, making her the only athlete to win medals at the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year

Canada got a crack at hosting its first Winter Olympics in 1988, and despite some unusually warm weather, the Calgary Games came through with more than their share of breathtaking performances and heartwarming — as well as heartbreaking — stories.

Leading the way at the medal podium for the last time were the Soviet Union and East Germany. Four years later in Albertville, with the Cold War over, a united Germany would march under one flag, while out of the crumbling Soviet Union a patchwork of newly independent nations would march under their own flags.

Heroes and novelties

Matti Nykänen of Finland dominated the ski jump, taking gold in the 70-metre and 90m events and adding another gold in the team competition. But the biggest star on the hill turned out to be an English plasterer with Coke-bottle glasses and a physique that was far from Olympian. Michael (Eddie the Eagle) Edwards easily was the worst ski jumper at the Calgary Games, and he placed accordingly.

Purists thought he sullied the competition. He qualified because he was the only British athlete who applied to compete at the Games. The IOC later passed the "Eddie the Eagle Rule," which heightened Olympic qualifying standards, but Edwards endeared himself to spectators and the media with his fearless, if sub-standard, jumps.

One athlete whose skill measured up to the acclaim he received was flamboyant Italian skier Alberto Tomba. "La Bomba" brashly guaranteed victory before racing, then delivered, winning gold medals in the slalom and giant slalom. He became an even bigger sensation when he tried to woo figure skating gold medallist Katarina Witt. Tomba obliged a worldwide television audience when he showed up at the skating rink to ask the sultry skater for a date.

Athletic competition always brings some heartbreak, but the story of American speed skater Dan Jansen was Calgary's saddest. A favourite in both the 500m and the 1,000 events, Jansen learned just before competition began that his older sister had died from cancer. Carrying on in spite of his grief, Jansen slipped first in the 500 and then, later that evening, in the 1,000.

The bad luck followed him four years later in Albertville when he slipped and ended up fourth in the 500 and 26th in the 1,000. The story eventually had a happy ending, though, when Jansen finally won gold in Lillehammer.

Jamaican bobsleigh team

Jamaican four-man bobsleigh pilot Dudley Stokes jumps in as his three teammates push off at the start of the second run of the Olympic four-man bobsleigh event. This is the first time that Jamaica participates in the bobsleigh event. ((George Gobet/AFP/Getty Images))
With a name that sounded like an oxymoronic punch line, the Jamaican bobsleigh team quickly became a fan favourite in Calgary.

Like "Eddie the Eagle," the Jamaicans proved popular because they were such unlikely competitors, representing a tropical country that had never seen snow, let alone a bobsleigh course.

The idea wasn't as far-fetched as it appeared, though. Jamaica has long produced world-class sprinters, the sort of power-legged athletes needed to generate the explosive push start required for bobsleigh.

The Jamaican team of Dudley and Nelson Stokes, Devon Harris and Michael White didn't do well in Calgary — they crashed and finished last. But the lovable underdogs were later immortalized in the 1993 film Cool Runnings, starring late Canadian comedian John Candy.

As if to demonstrate their appearance in Calgary was no joke, the Jamaican bobsleigh team returned to the Olympics for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. There, the Stokes brothers and new teammates Winston Watt and Thomas Wayne impressed the sledding world by finishing 14th overall and defeating competition from the United States, Russia, and France.

Canada's performance

As in Montreal 12 years earlier, Canada as an Olympic host country didn't make to the top step of the medal podium. Canada's best two medal performances came from figure skaters Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley, each of whom captured silver.

Orser, who had also won silver four years earlier in Sarajevo, was narrowly edged out by American Brian Boitano in what the media dubbed "The Battle of the Brians." Their showdown is widely considered to be the finest men's final in Olympic history.

Canadian Medallists

  • Brian Orser silver - figure skating
  • Elizabeth Manley silver - figure skating
  • Karen Percy 2 bronze - Alpine skiing
  • Robert McCall and Tracy Wilson bronze - figure skating

Unlike Orser, Manley was a long-shot whose performance was one of the biggest surprises of the games. The women's final was supposed to be "The Battle of Carmens," a reflection of the similar musical choices of Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debbi Thomas of the United States.

But Manley's performance of a lifetime during the long program vaulted her past Thomas, and just short of Witt and the gold medal.

In addition, ice dancers Rob McCall and Tracy Wilson captured a bronze medal, as figure skaters collected three of the five medals won by Canada during the Games.

Canadian skiers found themselves dealing with surprising balmy conditions. A chinook, the notoriously warm wind that can jack up Calgary's temperature by 10 degrees in an afternoon, swept east from the Rockies, melting the snow on Mount Allan and turning spectators into sunbathers.

The soft snow contributed to a number of upsets in the Alpine events. But Karen Percy of Banff, Alta., skiing with a broken left thumb, proved to be remarkably consistent, winning bronze medals in the downhill and super-G events. She almost won a third medal in the combined event, but lost control of her left ski pole and finished fourth.

The final medal tally may have been disappointing, but Canadians could take solace in the fact that their athletes won gold medals in freestyle skiing, curling and short-track speed skating. These were only demonstration events, and thus not counted in the medal tally, but the results provided a glimpse of things to come. The events would be officially recognized in future Winter Games and help Canada's medal count.

 Country  Gold  Silver  Bronze  Total
 1. Soviet Union  11  9  9  29
 2. East Germany  9  10  6  25
 3. Switzerland  5  5  5  15
 4. Austria  3  5  2  10
 5. West Germany  2  4  2  8
 13. Canada  0  2  3  5