Calgary giving up luge world championship to Whistler because of track shutdown

Calgary is handing the 2021 world luge championships to Whistler, B.C., because of the sliding track’s precarious situation.

The 33-year-old track on Calgary’s west side was the sliding sport venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

The track shut down this spring. A planned $25-million renovation is on hold until its operator WinSport can find more money to pay for it.

“We had to get a confirmation from WinSport that the track would be open for the 2021 season,” Luge Canada chief executive officer Tim Farstad told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.

“They couldn’t do that. They can’t confirm at this point it will be open. We wanted to make sure we could quickly pivot and try to keep it in Canada.”

The 2021 world championships in their hometown was going to be the last for the Calgary doubles team of Tristan Walker and Justin Snith, who helped Canada win relay silver at the 2018 Olympic Games.

The duo intends to retire after competing in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. World championships aren’t held in an Olympic year.

“So to have my last ever world championships in a 20-year luge career (at home), it was a huge opportunity and a fitting exit to that career,” Walker said. “Now it’s gone and it’s really disappointing.”

Luge Canada will ask the international governing body of luge to approve the change at its congress in June.

“With our congress coming up, they have to make a decision on it,” Farstad said. “We couldn’t wait until next year at this time. It’s too late. We’ve got to start working on funding applications and organizing the event.”

The Calgary track has been the home of the national bobsled, skeleton and luge teams for over three decades.

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

Canadian lugers won Olympic medals for the first time last year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with the relay silver and Alex Gough’s bronze in women’s singles.

Calgary last hosted a world luge championship in 2001.

The Whistler Sliding Centre, built for the 2010 Winter Games, was the world championship host in 2013.

Farstad says an economic impact study from Whistler concluded that championship pumped $1 million into the local economy.

“It was over a million dollars of impact because they come in for two weeks, it’s about 125 athletes and in and around 500 people total,” he said.

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

The provincial and federal governments have committed $17-million to a renovation that would replace the refrigeration system and alter the upper portion of the track.

The track hosts annual World Cup and international developmental races.

International athletes also train in Calgary because of its proximity to an international airport, as well as access to both a 100-metre indoor sprint track and an ice house in which to practice starts.

“We’re missing a large piece of the legacy of the 1988 Games,” Snith said.

“It almost seems like a waste to just let it sit there when you could have how ever many high-performance world-class athletes on it year after year.”

WinSport, which oversees Canada Olympic Park, said it was counting on a Calgary bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to generate more funding for the track.

But Calgarians voted down a bid in a plebiscite Nov. 13, 2018.

“We are still continuing to look for funding sources for the track project and it is still on pause, not stopped,” WinSport spokesman Dale Oviatt said in a statement.

“Given the construction time line and the fact that we don’t have funding in hand, we have informed the sport groups that the track won’t be operational next season.

“We are hopeful that we’ll find a funding solution to complete the construction to open for the 2020-21 season.

“Even when that is complete, it wouldn’t be feasible to host the worlds in 2021, due to the lead-up time required for such an important event.”

Farstad said sliders expected to lose one season in Calgary if the renovation had gone ahead this year.

More than one season impacts not only Canada’s medal prospects for 2022, but hampers his ability to recruit young lugers for the future.

“It could affect 2022 absolutely,” Farstad said. “It’s disappointing we’re losing the worlds, but more importantly to me is the track reopens.”

Unlike bobsled and skeleton, which draws adult athletes from other sports, lugers start young.

“With Calgary and a pretty significant population base, a lot of the lugers have started their early development and interest in the sport in Calgary,” Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.

“It’s a particular challenge for that sport. The pool of athletes to draw from, if it’s not in Calgary is a significant risk for luge.”

Own The Podium makes funding recommendations to Sport Canada based on medal potential, and provides technical advice and expertise to federations.

“We’re working with the sliding sports to make sure they have a plan should the Calgary track not open for the balance of the quadrennial,” Merklinger said.

“What is the daily training environment going to look like for those three sliding sports? That is definitely top of mind for us.”

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