Despite the 1988 Olympic Games changing Calgarian Gail Whiteford’s life, the former torch bearer says the city should not pursue the 2026 Winter Games.

“I think that this was a one-time experience that people who were involved in should relish and remember,” says Whiteford, a retired teacher.

“These days, with security and other things, the financial side of it would be incredibly different than it was before. There’s no way we could do it on our own —  let me amend that — there’s no way we should do it on our own.”

In November, the Calgary Bid Exploration Committee (CBED) announced hosting the 2026 Games would cost an estimated $4.6-billion, leaving many Calgarians questioning the benefits.  But city council allocated at least an additional $1 million to the exploration committee on Nov. 20, keeping the possibility of Calgary 2026 alive.

While Whiteford rejects further pursuit of the Games, she recognizes how pivotal the ‘88 Games were to her.

With her then three-month-old daughter, Allison, attached to her chest and zipped beneath a red and white track jacket, Whiteford completed her leg of the relay near Riviere De Troyes, Quebec.

Gail Whiteford and her three-month-old daughter Allison pose with the torch after her run in December 1987. Whiteford says she remembers being surprised at the weight of the torch. Photo Courtesy of Gail Whiteford.

In a Calgary Herald story, Whiteford had said that Allison had at one point gripped the torch “like it was a bottle of beer,” an offhanded comment that she later caught slack over.

“My husband was just mortified,” says Whiteford, now 66, of her comments three decades ago. “You had to answer questions very quickly and I just answered it a tad inappropriately.”

A drama teacher by trade, Whiteford says her involvement with the Olympics in 1988 changed her life drastically.

After doing several speeches about her run, she was offered a job teaching future athletes public speaking skills at the National Sport School in Calgary, which was constructed through profit from the Games. She worked at the high school for the next 12 years, teaching several future Olympians including gold medalists Kaillie Humphries and Kyle Shewfelt.

“They gave me 12 of the best teaching years of my life, working with incredible young people who are such an asset to Canada,” says Whiteford.

Beyond personal impact, Whiteford says she feels the Olympics brought the city together, putting Calgary on the map for more than just its cowboy reputation.

“It gave Calgary a name. Not just because of the Stampede, but because of the Olympics.”

Gail Whiteford is quoted in a 1987 Calgary Herald story saying her three-month-old daughter Allison was gripping the Olympic torch “like it was a beer bottle.” Whiteford says she did several interviews following her run, as she was the only Calgarian on the relay that day. Photo by Nathan Kunz.

Calgary then and now

Despite the impact the 1988 Games had on her, Whiteford says a 2026 Games likely wouldn’t have the same effect on Calgary, as the city is nothing like it was 30 years ago.

  • Calgary’s population was 657,118
  • The average home in Calgary costed $100,687
  • Ralph Klein was in his third term as Calgary’s mayor
  • The Calgary Flames were a year away from their first Stanley Cup Championship
  • The CTrain had only been operational for seven years
  • The annual average price for a barrel of oil was $14.24 USD

Harry Hiller, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary who specializes on the impact of Olympic Games on host cities, says the positive reception to the 1988 Winter Games came in part due to the relatively small size of the city at the time.

“For 1988, the city of Calgary was just emerging unto the world scene and for the most part, people felt honoured that Calgary was chosen,” states Hiller in a Nov. 30 email to the Calgary Journal.

“[The 1988 Winter Games] gave Calgary a name. Not just because of the Stampede, but because of the Olympics.” – Gail Whiteford

Hiller adds that Calgarians’ attachment to the games in ‘88 was striking, as citizens turned the competition into a festival which glorified people like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team as folk heroes, despite poor competitive performances.

Hiller says that while he expects public reaction would be mostly positive if a bid is further pursued, he has noticed a change in public discourse this time around.

He calls the bid process much more contentious than last time and one that “has taken the shine off the local excitement local people felt more last time.”

As for Whiteford, she says attempting to recapture the magic of 1988 in 2026 would only result in disappointing comparisons.

“It’s like trying to recreate a wedding,” says Whiteford. “The day is the memory. If you try to recreate it, it will never turn out as well.”

nkunz@cjournal.ca

Editor: Emily Thwaites | ethwaites@cjournal.ca

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