Road To The Olympic Games

Analysis

Winter is coming, but will the Games return to Calgary?

The road to the next Olympic Winter Games may have Beijing as its ultimate destination, but, as Scott Russell writes, the curtain goes up on the winter sport season with one overarching story dominating the winter sport narrative: Will Calgary take the plunge and bid for the Olympics in 2026?

Olympic quadrennial begins with Beijing as the target, but 2026 decision looms large

Fans cheer and wave flags as the Canadian delegation (lower right) parades during the opening ceremony of the Calgary Winter Olympic Games in February of 1988. An upcoming plebiscite will help determine whether Calgary bids for the Games in 2026. (File/AFP/Getty Images)

We are on the threshold of winter and in a country where ice tends to run through our sporting veins, the sweet season is about to commence.

The road to the next Olympic Winter Games has Beijing as its ultimate destination, but that's more than a thousand days away. Still, the significance of the first year of any quadrennial leading to one of the world's most significant events is full of intrigue.

As the curtain goes up, let's begin with the overarching story that dominates the winter sport narrative not only in Canada, but around the world: Will Calgary take the plunge and bid for the Olympics in 2026?

The citizens of Calgary will make their feelings known in a Nov. 13 plebiscite. They'll be asked a simple question: whether or not they are in favour of hosting the Olympic Winter Games for the second time in the city's history.

If the answer is yes, there's little doubt that Calgary, which staged the highly successful 1988 Games, would become the overwhelming front-runner to win the bid because the others in the race —  Stockholm, Sweden and Cortina/Milan, Italy — are experiencing funding issues and political infighting.

Yes or no?

The optimists suggest that should Calgary go aheadvote 'YES' and attempt to host again, that a modest and sustainable Games could renew the existing legacy of the national, high-performance centre of winter sport. It could also afford Canada the opportunity to take a leadership role in restoring confidence in the Olympic movement, which is sorely in need of a makeover when it comes to accountability and trust.

Alternatively, should the people of Calgary pass on hosting another Olympics, there would be consequences for sport down the road, not only at home, butalso internationally.

A 'NO' vote would clearly indicate that the Winter Olympics as a concept are in major trouble because very few countries outside of Asia have demonstrated a desire to host.

In addition, the future of the existing world-class facilities in Calgary is cast into doubt. If there is no desire to host, one might conclude there would be little will to make the maintenance and growth of the 1988 Olympic venues a priority.

The bottom line is the plebiscite in mid-November is a local Calgary vote, but it undeniably has national and global implications for sport.

Ice and snow (and medals) in the forecast

Voting aside, the rinks, mountains, ski trails, sliding runs and halfpipes in our own backyards and abroad are about to get busy.

In figure skating, a new-look Canadian team which won four medals at the Olympics in South Korea sets a course to develop the next generation of stars while hosting the ISU Grand Prix Finals in Vancouver in December.

Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion from Japan, continues to dominate and his rivalry with the explosive jumper and reigning world champion, Nathan Chen of the U.S., should provide plenty of drama.

It's a big year for alpine skiing and the best will converge on northern Sweden, in Are, for the world championships in February. This will be the last season for a couple established superstars.

Erik Guay, twice a world champion and the most prolific Canadian World Cup racer of all time, is calling it a career but not before he takes another crack at winning the famed downhill at Kitzbuhel.

Canada's Erik Guay has committed to one more World Cup alpine season before hanging up his skis. (File/Getty Images)

Meantime, American ace Lindsey Vonn has confirmed she'll retire regardless of whether or not she surpasses Ingemar Stenmark's record of 86 World Cup victories. Vonn stands at 82 and opens the season at Lake Louise where she is capable of winning three speed races to get very close to the total of the Swedish legend.

Curlers ready to rock

Curling is the great Canadian pastime, and on the heels of being shut out of team medals for the first time at the Pyeongchang Olympics, the deck has been shuffled.

But Brad Gushue, the 2006 Olympic champion, has kept his rink together, signed a record-setting sponsorship deal, and appears ready to take a run at another Olympic appearance in Beijing.

On the women's side, Rachel Homan, the 2017 world champion who disappointingly missed a medal in South Korea, has also kept her foursome intact. They've returned to coach Marcel Rocque and now set their sights on the Grand Slam, which has never been more internationally competitive for female curlers.

The growth of mixed doubles curling, which made its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, is also something to keep an eye on. The gold-medal success of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes has sparked a surge in interest in this curling discipline across the country.

Canada's Kaitlyn Lawes, left, and John Morris celebrate winning gold in the mixed doubles final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. Interest in the curling discipline has skyrocketed since that victory. (File/The Associated Press)

Short track speed skating has been a Canadian staple since it came onto the Olympic program in 1992 and it continues to produce international victories.

Still going strong is 34-year-old Charles Hamelin who has 13 times been a world championship gold medallist. At long last, Hamelin won the overall world title at home in Montreal last March.

He'll be bolstered by young Samuel Girard who won Olympic gold at 1000m in South Korea and three-time Olympic medallist Kim Boutin on a women's team which is rebuilding after the retirement of Marianne St-Gelais.

Ironically, the short trackers begin their world cup season at the Olympic Oval in Calgary just 10 days prior to the plebiscite on the proposed 2026 bid.

It's a season which will also feature plenty of long track speed skating, bobsleigh, luge, skeleton, ski cross, freestyle, cross country and snowboarding.

As it is with short track, most winter sports will have station stops on their respective world cup circuits in the Calgary area this competitive season.

Who knows — perhaps the road to another Olympic Games in the Stampede city is about to begin in earnest.

We'll know in less than a month.

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