Here we go again, less than 2 weeks to go before the games, and I once again pack for the long flight across the Atlantic. This is a special games for me on a couple of levels. First with having a national identity, my own flag to wave. The second, this will be my first Olympic jorney as a member of the press. All in all, my 9th (yes, I have been to 8) Olympic Games. Those are stories in itself, and something for another time, today I give you my first true Olympic experience.
It was February, 1988. A windy, bitter evening in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. A town about a 3 hour drive south of Calgary, the host city of the XV Winter Olympiad. The games were weeks away, as they are now, and the torch was on the final legs of its journey towards “Cowtown” as Calgary is known. This would be the second games Canada would host. The first in Montreal in 1976, the summer games that would prove to be a financial disaster, and embarrassing, as Canada would fail to win gold on home soil. Would the maple leaf fly high this time?
I’m getting off subject, back to that night. I was 7 years old. My mother told me to get in the car, we were going to see “the torch.” I had no idea what she was talking about. At that age, I was still new to the general realm of sports, let alone the magnitude of the games. We got in the car, and off we went, to the downtown core. We park about 3 blocks from 3rd Avenue South, the street of the relay, and walk in this cold, miserable Canadian weather to an empty street packed 5 deep with people, excited beyond belief.
Why? I had no idea. A load of people lining the street, for a couple hours it seemed. Waiting, waiting. “Mom, what are we waiting for?” I ask. “The torch,” my mom told me. That was all she said. Not long after, I look East, and I see the crowd start to light. My mom hands me a large white candle with a red cup just under the wick. She lights it. I look up, and see everyone did the same. Candlelit streets as far as I could see.
Then there was noise. Crowds cheering, and it was getting louder. Police sirens, car corns.
Then I see them, a convoy of vehicles, lights flashing, and the crowd going nuts, flag waving, everything. It was almost a blur. I am trying to take it all in, comprehend what’s going on. Then I look into the street.
There it is. The Olympic Torch. Shaped like the Calgary Tower, and like the candle I was holding. A man was walking with the torch, someone holding each arm. Whoever was carrying the torch was blind. The only visual memory I had after seeing all that was that flame, it looked huge. Immense to my young eyes, and all I could think was, what is this about, and how do I get in on this?
A few days later, I’m in elementary, Grade 2, and the teachers were giving special presentations about what would take place in Calgary. We were given spectator guides & posters (which I still have). That night I remember just sitting in my bedroom staring at this poster, taking everything that happened in the last couple of days. My dad comes into the room and asks me what I think of all this. I tell him I want to know more. He gives me an envelope, and in it: Tickets. Tickets to THE OLYMPIC GAMES.
Even though they were another Canadian embarrassment, no Gold, there were still stories. Elizabeth Manley and her surprise silver in Figure Skating. Matti Nykanen winning 3 gold in Ski Jumping. Alberto Tomba tearing the ski hills. Brian Boitano & Brian Orser dueling on skates. A ski jumper sent into a camera tower when chinook winds blew through the city, almost cancelling events with the weather. Hockey, and Canada’ national passion was taking over people’s lives. Curling, Freestlye Skiing, & Short Track speed Skiing were demonstration events.
All that, and for the first time I could say, “I was there.” The people I met, the things I saw, the memories. I even caught a puck at a hockey game, still got that too. It’s amazing what not just the Olympics, but sports in general do to people. These games would have a profound impact on my life to come, and I’ll tell you more in my next piece.