Bobsled track almost good to go if Calgary hosts 2026 Winter Olympics

Of all the legacy Olympic venues in Calgary, the bid exploration committee may be least worried about the sliding track for bobsleigh, luge and skeleton.

The city is considering pitching to host the 2026 Winter Olympics, relying on the lasting infrastructure built for the 1988 Games. 

The sliding track, now managed by WinSport, is set to undergo a few renovations worth roughly $23 million. Construction may begin as early as next spring, whether or not the Olympics go ahead in Calgary.

Other than an arena, the sliding tracks can be one of the most expensive investments a city must make to host the games, and that’s something the committee should keep in mind, three-time Olympic bobsled gold medallist Steve Mesler said.

“It’s a waste of a bid not to take advantage of the fact that one of the most expensive infrastructure projects, we already have,” he said. “And we only have to invest in it a little bit to make it last another 30 years.”

In contrast, Korea spent $141 million on building a new track for this year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.

The retired American athlete lives in Calgary and knows the WinSport track well. He said it’s not the most exhilarating track but it’s so fast “you start to kiss 140 kilometres an hour.”

Pierre Lueders and David MacEachern of Canada celebrate as they cross the finish line at the Men’s Two-Man Bobsled at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Canada tied with Italy for the Gold Medal in the event. (Beth A. Keiser/Associated Press)

Indeed, athletes can hit the maximum allowable force on a sliding track in two of the 14 corners.

“You kind of live on the edge and … you have a higher chance of crashing,” Mesler said. “These are tricky corners, so it, by all means, still lives up to those standards.

“Calgary’s ice is also known as one of the best places in the world, too, for the smoothness of it and the speed.”

Calgary’s dry climate, altitude and calibre of the ice-making professionals all make the slide’s surface renowned. It was also one of the first computer-designed tracks in the world, so it flows more smoothly than older tracks designed on paper.

Gold medallists Kaillie Humphries, left, of Calgary and Heather Moyse of P.E.I. celebrate at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The track continues to host World Cup events but it is 30 years old. A potential Calgary Winter Games is another eight years away.

Newer tracks, like the one made for Torino 2006, are more technically challenging. In nearby B.C., the Whistler track is considered the fastest in the world.

‘Easier scale of things’

Some athletes consider Calgary a warm-up track on the race circuit, rather than one that really pushes them.

“This track is on the easier scale of things,” WinSport senior ice manager Tyler Sietz said. “It is not a technically difficult track to get down. It’s a technically difficult track to go fast on.”

Sietz is a former Olympic-level luge athlete, and argued an easier track is necessarily a bad thing. 

“You have to be at your peak of perfection to win a gold medal on this track. You have to nail four runs in a row without a mistake,” he said. “To me, at the Olympic Games level, it shouldn’t be the guy that just makes it down. It should be the guy that does it perfectly.”

Canada’s Kaillie Humphries, Dan Dale, Joey Nemet and Douglas McLelland, compete in the men’s World Cup 4-man bobsled event in Calgary on Dec. 20, 2014. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The planned renovations will streamline the track and improve ice quality. Right now, bobsledders and lugers start at different places before their paths meet five corners into the track.

The first bobsled turns will be dismantled so both sports will head down the same track, reducing maintenance costs.

Removing those turns should also add more ground space for a potential venue for slopestyle and halfpipe events.

Freezing change

The refrigeration system will be replaced entirely, a major project. The cooling pipes are now filled with an ammonia mixture, which can be deadly. Instead, they’ll use the far safer though less efficient glycol.

Under the new system, ice managers will be able to adjust the ice temperature in specific parts of the track. That will be an improvement because now when the sun hits one part of the track, the ice managers have to boost the cooling system along the entire track to make up the temperature difference.

German and Canadian athletes celebrate during the two-man bobsled final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The two countries tied for a gold medal. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

WinSport is also upgrading buildings for athletes at either end of the track.

So those improvements are in the works, and an Olympics would bring more. For example, they’re looking at adding an outrun at the end of the course, because athletes are hitting higher speeds than they were in 1988. They could use the extra room to slow down.

The site would also need more spectator space.

Medals show legacy

Perhaps the best legacy of 1988’s sliding track would be the athletes. Since adding the facility, Canada has gone from no medals to its athletes regularly appearing on Olympic and World Cup podiums.

With a sliding track so close to a city of 1.3 million, young athletes have grown up in proximity to excellent training. That includes champion bobsledder Kaillie Humphries.

The track’s impact was evident in this year’s Olympic Winter Games. Canada won a gold for men’s two-person bobsleigh, a bronze for women’s and a silver for luge team relay.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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