Facelift of Calgary’s ’88 sliding track to bring change for bobsleigh team

Calgary's '88 sliding track to get a facelift

Calgary’s Olympic sliding track is getting a makeover after three decades and a quarter of a million bobsled, luge and skeleton runs.

A $20-million renovation scheduled for the summer of 2018 will dramatically alter the upper section of the track at Canada Olympic Park, which has been the home of Canada’s sliding teams since it was built for the 1988 Winter Games.

Canadians have won six bobsled and four skeleton medals at the Olympics, including five gold, since then.

The current track is the shape of a Y with the upper section of the bobsled/skeleton track merging with the luge track a third of the way down the course.

The bobsled section of the Y will be removed and bob and skeleton athletes will instead slide the luge course.

So after stampeding down the in-run and loading their sleds, they’ll veer left down a curvy section instead of heading right through lazier turns.

The first four corners of the 1,500-metre bob track have always been “kind of slow and kind of lame,” said former bobsled pilot Lyndon Rush, who is an Olympic bronze medallist.

Now a coach of the Canadian team, Rush did test runs with a crew from the men’s luge start in the fall of 2014. He says switching over to the luge track makes the early part of a bob course more interesting to drive.

“It has a real nice rhythm to it and each curve gets a little bit bigger as you go,” Rush said.

“The first three or four corners on the bobsleigh side is basically straightaway the entire way. This way it won’t be. There will actually be curves. That’s kind of what our sport is about is curves.”

Calgary’s international reputation as an “easy” track compared to the one built for the 2010 Winter Games in Whistler, B.C., won’t change, Rush said.

“Calgary’s not all of a sudden going to become a Whistler because of this,” he said. “Calgary is a push track and the reason we call it that is if you start fast, you’ll do well.

“It’s not hard enough to lose time. It’s still going to be a push track I think.”

Calgary’s bob and skeleton track records, some more than a decade old, will change.

The track can’t be significantly faster, says track manager Tyler Seitz, because international racing rules don’t allow for a G-force of more than five. He says Calgary is already near that limit.

Seitz trained and competed on the Calgary track for years as a luger before becoming its manager in 2011. He’s looking forward to the replacement of the refridgeration system.

“In simplest terms, right now, we have to refridgerate the whole track for the warmest point,” Seitz explained.

“If the sun is shining in the out-run and it’s melting a spot in the out-run, I have to refridgerate the whole track to freeze that spot.

“With this change, we would end up with zone control. We would end up with something like 110 separate zones on the track, so I can keep it an optimal ice temperature in every area whether it’s in the sun or shade.”

About 72 metres of track will be permanently removed, which will save on maintenance costs, Seitz added.

According to archives at WinSport, formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association, the cost to build the track was $18.8 million.

The Alberta government is contributing $10 million to the facelift. Calgary is a regular stop on World Cup sliding circuits.

The track needs upgrading to stay in the good graces of the international sliding sport federations, said WinSport president and CEO Barry Heck. 

“To keep us world standard, we will have to make these changes,” Heck said. “We’ve kept it maintained.

“Over the years, there’s been several millions of dollars in regular routine maintenance and repairs that have gone into it.”

The public’s recreational bob rides with experienced drivers will be unaffected as they start lower down on the luge track.

There have been many triumphs on the Calgary track, but also tragedy. A group of teenage boys climbed over the security fence to joyride on tobaggans in the middle of the night just over a year ago.

Two deaths and serious injuries resulted from colliding with the barrier that changes the track from a bob run to a luge run.

Reconfiguring the track was in the works before 2016, according to Heck.

“This is a project that’s been on the books at WinSport for several years now, recognizing the sliding track is a tremendous asset, but it is approaching end of life,” Heck said.

“It’s over 30 years now and it needs a modernization and a renovation.”

Calgary is currently exploring a possible bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. The sliding track project was going ahead regardless, Heck said, but it would dovetail nicely with a bid should it happen.

“The beautiful thing about it is, and I don’t want to trivialize twenty million dollars, but you’ll end up with a modernized, world-class track for a fraction of the cost of a new one, which would be one hundred and forty or fifty million dollars,” Heck said.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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