February 19, 2019 7:55 pm

Canada’s bobsleigh team races World Cup on Calgary’s WinSport track facing closure

WATCH: Two members of the Canadian Women's Bobsleigh Team join Global News Morning Calgary to discuss the World Cup races at WinSport Feb. 20 to 24, 2019.

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Canada’s skeleton and bobsled teams will race a World Cup on their home track under a cloud of uncertainty.

Calgary’s 33-year-old sliding track, built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, is facing closure. So Canada’s sliders are wondering if the World Cup from Friday to Sunday will be their last races on it.

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“It’s really bad for the sport if the track closes, especially in a country like Canada where we’re kind of a world leader in sport, especially winter sports,” said Justin Kripps, who piloted Canada to Olympic bobsled gold in 2018.

“To have a legacy facility like that close would be devastating to the sport.

“The positive impact the track has goes a lot further than a lot of people realize as far as bringing athletes into the city and they stay here and live here and pay taxes, buy houses and go to school and inspire youth.”

READ MORE: Calgary luge, bobsleigh upgrade projects shelved due to funding issues: WinSport

Canadians have won a combined eight Olympic medals in bobsled and skeleton since 1988, including four gold.

The luge team landed on the Olympic podium for the first time last year with a relay silver and Alex Gough’s bronze. Calgary is slated to host the 2021 world luge championships.

But a planned $25-million track renovation, which includes replacing the refrigeration unit, is on hold until there’s enough money to pay for it.

The provincial and federal governments have committed to covering $17 million of the cost.

WinSport, formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association, was counting on a successful Calgary bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to generate remaining funds. Calgary 2026 proposed $502 million to be spent on ’88 legacy venues to get them Games-ready again.

But Calgarians voted down a 2026 bid in a Nov. 13 plebiscite.

WinSport president Barry Heck was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but spokesman Dale Oviatt said the track will shut down at the end of its operating season March 3.

If and when it will open again are the bigger questions.

“We looked at the 2026 bid and to us, it was the silver bullet,” Oviatt said. “We knew it was going to give us the extra money we needed to finish the track project, do some rejuvenation around the entire park.

“After March 3, we are decommissioning the refrigeration system here. We can no longer operate with this refrigeration system.

“We’re not cancelling the track project. We just said we’re putting a pause on it. We’ll continue the conversations with the provincial and federal government to see if we can get the money.”

A second issue is WinSport feeling the financial squeeze of escalating operating costs and other planned construction projects in Canada Olympic Park, such has improved snowmaking capacity for the ski slopes.

Endowment funds invested from the 1988 Winter Olympics are used to operate legacy venues — two-thirds of which go to the speedskating oval at the University of Calgary — but that money isn’t for capital projects, Oviatt said.

READ MORE: Killing 2 Olympic sports with 1 closure: Group petitions to save Calgary’s ski jumps

A second Canadian track was built in Whistler, B.C., for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. But the athletes prefer living in Calgary over a ski resort village for multiple reasons, including a lower cost of living, an easily accessible international airport and more post-secondary institutions and job opportunities.

“I just bought a house here with my husband, who is an Austrian bobsled pilot,” Calgary skeleton racer Elisabeth Maier said.

“Our reason to settle here was WinSport and having this incredible facility. He’s planning to have camps with his teammates, bringing them from Austria which increases tourism here in Calgary.

“That’s not going to happen if the track closes. It makes more sense for us to go to Austria and train there than it does to stay here.”

Whistler also doesn’t have Calgary’s ice house built in 2001 at COP for $4.1 million to give sliders have an off-season facility to practice starts and pushing.

Across the hall from the ice house is a dryland training centre featuring a 100-metre sprint track.

“People from literally all over the world come here to use this facility and they stay here for months at a time for training camps and put money into the local economy,” Kripps said.

“A lot of those internationals even end up moving here. We’ve got a lot of Americans who live here to train.”

Oviatt says the ice house will operate this summer. After that?

“It was a surprise to get the news when we were thinking we were going to be shovels in the ground in a few weeks,” Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada president Sarah Storey said.

“It’s not clear yet what the options are, but certainly both Luge Canada and BCS will be knocking on the doors of those who have a say in this to make sure they understand the impact of this track.

“We’re not making any immediate plans to pull up stakes.”

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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