Opinion: From elite athletes to Calgary’s children, the Olympic Oval serves us all

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Whether you’re watching world-class athletes compete on the “world’s fastest ice” or cheering on a child as they stop teetering and find their balance in hockey skates, Calgary’s Olympic Oval is an absolute gift to the city, the province and the country.

But it needs urgent and major renovations. The University of Calgary is “actively pursuing” funding from the provincial and federal governments and private donors to ensure the Oval is the gift that keeps giving.

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Catriona Le May Doan, Denny Morrison and many other Olympians spent endless hours training there, eventually bringing home 36 Olympic medals. Equally significant in our family, my kids and all their cousins learned to skate at the Oval. They’re not household names or elite athletes, but the Oval is important to them, too.

When I was raising my kids it was a favourite place to burn off some energy. Tens of thousands of Calgarians have memories like I do — my daughter proudly ditching the trainer and taking off on her own the first time she was on skates.

Not everyone in the city can walk to the Oval at the University of Calgary where I worked as a neurologist for many years. But the Oval transcends neighbourhoods. On any given day, you will meet people from all over the city and world on the ice, running the track or weightlifting. Thousands more come to watch one of the dozens of local, national and global competitions the Oval hosts every year.

Originally built in 1987 for the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games, the Oval is widely recognized as having the world’s fastest 400-metre indoor speedskating surface. More than 300 world records have been broken on its ice. International coaches and athletes clamour to train at the Oval in speedskating, hockey, bobsled, luge, basketball, cross-country, golf, soccer, rugby, football, track and field, and cycling.

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But, as my family proves, that’s only part of the story. Nearly 40 per cent of the facility hours are used by the community — families and friends skating, running, using the gym or attending special community events such as Skate with Santa or a science fair. A good two-thirds of the programming at the Oval promotes participation in sport, physical activity and overall wellness.

The Oval has an outsized role in research, too. It’s one of the big reasons UCalgary’s faculty of kinesiology is consistently ranked the best in North America and seventh in the world. Researchers use the facility for cutting-edge research. If you are wearing ON runners, their unique design began at the Oval with Dr. Benno Nigg.

But the Oval can no longer outrun its financial situation. The series of minor renovations over nearly four decades won’t cut it anymore. The highly specialized ice-making equipment is on the brink of failing. The building’s systems are at the end of their life spans. It was built to last 25 years. It’s been 37.

The good news is the Oval has a well-thought-out redevelopment plan to maintain its global reputation and high-performance visitors, as well as its local mix of community, university and elite athletes. That redevelopment will cost $52 million over three years.

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That’s a lot of money. And, yes, every facility across Alberta could use more funding. But consider that each world championship the Oval hosts generates $3.5 million of economic activity. A World Cup creates $1.7 million per event and sporting events that don’t use the ice create $2.5 million per event. The Oval employs about 100 full- and part-time staff and more than 6.8 million people have walked through its doors. In fact, in the nearly 40 years since the Olympics, the Oval has had an economic impact of more than $170 million.

As for the effect on families and kids who have learned to skate there, fallen in love with physical activity or gained confidence in a sport, well, as they say, it’s priceless.

The calculation is clear. We can’t sit by and let this one-of-a-kind facility slip through our fingers. The Oval has given us so much over the past 37 years.

Now, the Oval urgently needs our help.

Luanne Metz is the NDP MLA for Calgary-Varsity, which includes the University of Calgary.

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