It was a cold, clear, February day in Calgary as we waited for the final torch runner to enter the plaza outside the stadium.
The plaza was packed with people standing behind a long line of barricades that created a running lane. There were also dozens of protesters there to show their support for the Lubicon band’s fight against oil exploration in their territory in the northern area of the province. Some of them wore Brian Mulroney masks, with exaggerated chins.
Even though the sun was out, it was bitterly cold. Across from me, on the other side of the path the last public member of the run would go through, were two young girls, bundled up to the max. One of them had tears frozen to her cheeks.
It was to cheers of joy and great relief that the final running torchbearer, Calgary’s own Deborah Hilderman, came into view and jogged through the cheering crowd. Further on down, she would hand the torch off to Olympic legends Ken Read and Cathy Priesner, who would usher it into the stadium and pass it to the flame lighter, 12-year-old figure skater, Robyn Perry.
The weather was odd during the two weeks of the Games, as the phenomenon known as a chinook wind occasionally warmed things up to a point where people removed layers only to have to put them on again a short time later. It also rained, forcing the use of artificial snow at times for the first time in Olympic history.
I was doing double duty, working for Kainai News and the Calgary Herald, as part of an agreement between the school journalism program and media. This arrangement and my Kainai pass allowed me considerable access to events, including hockey, bobsled, luge, and ski jumping. Watching luge for the first time is one of my most vivid memories.
We were bussed to Olympic Park at 7 am and were able to pick from various points to view it. I chose the first Kriesel turn, which is the section of the track where the riders go up along a curved wall above the track. I’m not sure what the temperature was but it was as cold as I have ever been. We all clenched our hot chocolates and coffees and smiled that why-are-we-doing-this smile at each other and made small talk as we waited for the first rider to come down.
Then it happened.
We heard a loud buzzer, and I assumed that was the “ready” signal. We looked at each other, nodding, okay, guess it’s happening. Then there was a rumbling, like a small avalanche was occurring, and it was getting closer. We looked at each other, confused, and then – zing! – the rider flew by in a flash!
There was a collective gasp and a momentary silence, before we all burst out laughing, that delirious kind of laugh people do when they’ve had a close call, although there was no real sense of danger. It was just, well, crazy. We had no chance to watch it, it happened so fast.
A short time later, the buzzer sounded again and we all steeled ourselves, staring at the wall of ice, like living cameras except that we would not blink like a camera shutter. Our eyes would stay wide open and glued to that wall of ice. And then – zing! – he flew by and, yes, this time, we caught a glimpse of a body and a face hurtling by and – just like that – gone. More laughter. Wow.
I pulled out my little point-n-shoot camera and sighed. How was I going to get a good shot of this? I came up with a plan, the only one, really. I would watch a few more and, once I heard the rumbling, I would count the seconds until the rider hit the high point of the turn – and I would click the shot a second earlier. Keep in mind that this was when film was used so there was no way for me to know if I got a good one or not until I got it developed.
So, away I shot, as rider after rider whizzed by, hoping that at least one of the shots would be half-decent, all the while believing that half would be just shots of the wall and the rest might be blurs. I glanced sheepishly at the pro beside me, with his military grade camera, and he smiled, “you never know. I bet you get something you can use.” I nodded. Turned out, he was right.
My favorite event on the hill was ski-jumping. It seemed impossible how high up they were and how far they flew and yet were able to land without injury. If you’re ever in Calgary and have never checked out the ski jump, go to the top and look down. No way, you’ll think.
At the ski jump final, there were two large stands on either side of the jumpers’ landing area, filled to capacity. It was a raucous crowd that, prior to the competition’s start, engaged in a competition of who could yell the loudest “tastes great!” or “less filling!” that was popular in Bud light commercials. I was in the left stand, which started with “tastes great!” Honestly, I don’t know who was louder but it kept us amused and made us forget how cold it was.
The event itself was dominated by legendary Finnish jumper, Matti Nykanen, who won three gold medals in Calgary and five world championships in his career. The way he was able to soar, to glide for so long, was mesmerizing – even though he took a back seat in popularity to Englishman, Eddie the Eagle, with his Coke bottle glasses and everyman charm. Eddie plopped off the end of the jump more than he soared, but he still got a big cheer!
At the end of one night at Olympic Park, I went to the party tent, where beer and hot dogs were aplenty. And this is where one of the greatest competitions would take place: the (unofficial) world beer can stacking championship!
It was a large tent and there were at least eight countries involved and, at the end, it came down to two: Canada vs Germany. I had contributed early, on the lower levels but, being quite drunk, I left the upper levels to the more sober, more capable stacking athletes.
It was a classic matchup between a Winter Olympics power and the host and up-and-comer. A huge cheer went up every time a can was successfully placed, as well as oohs and gasps as it got more difficult. But then, a German stacker, who had probably had a few too many, fumbled to place his can evenly and knocked the can below askew, setting off the chain reaction, and a huge Canadian cheer as the pile tumbled down! Hugs and many more beers followed the win, and we sang O’Canada repeatedly, including later on the buses back to the city.
As I rode back to the city and the stop nearest to where I lived, I couldn’t help but think how our victory that night in that tent might have paved the way for future Olympians and their dreams to one day be, like that last beer can, at the top of the world!
NEXT: Scraping by in the program and getting a job back home!