Road To The Olympic Games


30 years after Calgary '88, will the Olympic legacy be renewed?

The Calgary 1988 Winter Olympic Games consummated a love affair between a community and sport. As CBC Sports host Scott Russell writes, now we'll see if that passion has been inherited by a new generation of Calgarians.

A look back at the 'greatest Games' as Calgarians vote on hosting the world once again

Figure skater Brian Orser carries the Canadian flag as he leads the Canadian Olympic team into McMahon Stadium in Calgary during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. Orser's battle with rival Brian Boitano three decades ago is just one of many memorable moments from those Games. (File/The Canadian Press)

It's been more than 30 years since the wonder of the Calgary Olympics.

Hard to fathom, but they survive as arguably the greatest Winter Games of all time.

The cast of characters is unrivalled 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 lustre 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 Germany, who performed seductively to Georges Bizet's "Carmen" on the way to capturing a gold medal over her skating rival Debi Thomas of the United States who ironically also skated to music from "Carmen."

"In 1988, the stars shone bright," said four-time world figure skating champion Kurt Browning, who made the first of his 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."

Witt recalls the satisfaction of the gold medal she won in 1988, becoming the only female singles skater to repeat as Olympic champion since Sonje Henie of Norway won three gold medals in a row more than half a century before.

Watch Katarina Witt reminisce about the Calgary Games:

Greats of '88: Katarina Witt


3 years ago
Representing East Germany, the figure skater captured gold, making her the first repeat women's champion since 1936. 3:12

But for Witt, the magic of Calgary was about much more than a personal victory.

"There was such a warm welcome from the Canadians," she said. "It was so wonderful that the Olympics were in a country where they love sport…where they love winter sport and especially where they love figure skating."

Rocketing in between Witt and Thomas, Canadian underdog Elizabeth Manley of Ottawa captured lightning in a bottle and the silver medal in Calgary.

She very nearly stood atop the podium on a famous night where she donned a Stetson after her once-in-a-lifetime performance. That white cowboy hat and so many others like it have become symbolic of the volunteers who worked those Games -- some say the greatest force of community volunteers in Olympic history.

Watch Elizabeth Manley reflect on the '88 Games:

Greats of '88: Elizabeth Manley


3 years ago
The Canadian skated out of the shadows of her competitors, capturing ladies figure skating silver at the 1988 Games in Calgary. 2:40

"It's every athlete's dream to not only win an Olympic medal but to do it in your home country," Manley said. "It was the cat's meow for me."

There were also 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.

Watch the 'Battle of the Brians' at the '88 Games:

Greats of '88: The Battle of the Brians


3 years ago
Brian Orser and Brian Boitano went toe-to-toe in the men's free skate at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. 3:32

In the end it was sport that triumphed.

"I smile when I think of what we delivered in Calgary for the fans that people still remember 30 years later," the silver medallist Orser said. "We left an incredible mark and one of the best rivalries ever."

"All athletes were welcomed and celebrated," said 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."

Watch Tracy Wilson relive her Calgary triumph:

Greats of '88: Tracy Wilson


3 years ago
Tracy Wilson recalls winning Canada's first Olympic medal in ice dancing, a bronze, with partner Rob McCall. 2:54

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 by finishing last but who also ended up stealing the show.

"I exemplified that Olympic ideal, that Olympic spirit," Edwards enthused. "I think that's the most important thing and that's what people remember."

Watch Eddie the Eagle talk about his unlikely jump to fame:

Greats of '88: Eddie the Eagle


3 years ago
The British ski jumper made the Olympics after starting the sport 20 months earlier, he knew he wouldn't win a medal but his goal was simply to represent his country. 2:47

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team rocked Calgary having partially financed their journey by selling T-shirts and reggae records.

It was a story fit for a fable.

The last of the great Soviet hockey teams triumphed, featuring a lineup which included Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov and Alexander Mogilny. All were on the cusp of becoming NHL superstars.

Alpine skier Karen Percy of nearby Banff, Alta., captured two of Canada's modest total of five medals in 1988.

Both were third-place finishes in the speed events. But Percy, who became a local legend (not to mention a national darling), won the first Canadian medal on home snow and was the natural choice to carry the flag at the closing ceremony.

Watch Karen Percy's dream come true:

Greats of '88: Karen Percy


3 years ago
The two-time bronze medallist was responsible for two of the five medals Canada won that year, and did it all with a broken hand. 2:58

"I was a girl with a dream and my dream came true," Percy said tearfully as she conjured up that time in her life.

"It doesn't seem like 30 years ago that it happened. But I still truly feel that feeling of being Canadian and having delivered something to Canadians that was really fun and magical."

Wilson echoed Percy's sentiments about competing at home.

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

There were other stars including Swiss downhill ace Pirmin Zurbriggen and the incomparable 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 Percy, Gaetan Boucher, and Nordic skier Pierre Harvey garnered much of the attention they were not the only story. Canada winning the most medals was not the end game as it turned out to be in Vancouver in 2010.

"Happiness was to be at home," Harvey concluded. "It was to be able to compete in front of, and for, Canadian citizens, friends and family."

Watch Pierre Harvey's reflections on competing at a 'home' Games:

Greats of '88: Pierre Harvey


3 years ago
The Quebec native became the first ever Canadian male athlete to compete in both the summer and winter Olympic Games. 3:13

"I competed at two Olympics beyond Calgary and nothing compares to the intensity of that one for me," Browning said. "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 more than 30 years behind us. 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.

It's quite clear, three decades later, that through 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.

Calgary 1988 consummated a love affair between a community and sport.

Now we'll see if that passion has been inherited by a new generation of people from Calgary.

More importantly we'll find out if there's a will to ensure that the legacy of those memorable and landmark Games can be renewed.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?