Blown Away – An Almost Olympic Disaster
Still considered one of the top ten best Olympic opening ceremonies of all time, the Calgary Winter Games were officially opened on February 13, 1988. Not only are the '88 games emblazoned in our memory for the heroic ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, not to mention the début of the Jamaican national bobsled team, but the ’88 games were also the most expensive Olympic games ever held at that time. The opening ceremonies alone came with a 10-million-dollar price tag, but long before the age of LED lights, drones and augmented realities, this ceremony relied on more traditional methods of entertainment. The 60,000 spectators crammed in McMahon Stadium each donned coloured ponchos to create a stadium-wide image for the two billion people watching from home. With upwards of six thousand performers, one thousand pigeons, hundreds of horses and thousands of balloons, the opening ceremonies were a joyous and colourful celebration.
Every Olympic opening is leading to that fateful moment when the cauldron is finally lit with the Olympic flame officially starting the games. For this memorable moment, the cauldron was placed atop a long staircase and a giant tepee structure was built aloft as a tribute to Canada’s indigenous heritage. Atop this tepee structure were wire rope hoists, connected to banners below that would be risen to form the full tepee at the moment the cauldron was set alight.
And that is how our Kristian Electric team found themselves at the 1988 Opening Ceremony. Hired to run the rigging required to bring up the tepee, they stood on the scaffold deck next to the controls, patiently awaiting their moment.
And then there was the wind.
Chinook winds are no stranger to the Calgary area. They didn’t want to miss out on the celebration. As 7-year-old Robyn Perry, a local seventh-grade student and figure skater, lit the cauldron, our Kristian workers began to raise the banners when the wind arrived.
“The structure started to shake violently. The wind had caught the curtains about halfway up,” remembers Dean Gjertsen, one of the Kristian workers on site that day. “The scaffolding started shaking violently too. Five of us dove off the scaffold and onto the red and white club roof!”
With gusts that reached upwards of 74 kilometres an hour, the wind was using the raising banners as sails… causing the tepee to shudder. Just as the job appeared to be heading south, the crowd was distracted by the Snowbird military aerobatic flyover and the resulting echoing sound of church bells and sirens that rang through the city of Calgary.
Seizing the opportunity, the Kristian team quickly lowered the banners and discovered that wind had caused the large ground screws securing the tepee to start pulling out of the ground.
“We were fortunate the jets distracted the crowds,” says Gjertsen. “It would have been a disaster with all the athletes and kids on the playing field below.”
After the ‘88 Olympic Games wrapped up, the tepee was moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta where it was rechristened the Sammis Tepee. With the addition of more structural elements in 1991 to turn the temporary structure into a permanent monument, the Sammis Tepee now stands in full glory above the scenic Seven Persons coulee. Today the Sammis Tepee is a popular roadside attraction, even christened the World’s Largest Tepee! With a foundation weight of 800 metric tons and nearly a thousand bolts holding the structure together, it is safe to say that this tepee isn’t going anywhere.