CALGARY, Alberta -- For the past five years, Olympic organizers have been working to transform this bustling prairie city known for cowboys and oil rigs into the winter sports capital of the world.
They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on facilities for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. And they have done so, for the most part, on time and on budget.
But the businessmen, politicians and sports enthusiasts entrusted with this gargantuan task suffer from a poor public image that already threatens the success of the Games, which open Feb. 13, 1988.
Critics have accused them of pandering to corporate interests at the expense of the public and the athletes. They have been called arrogant, secretive and obsessed with bottom-line considerations. And they have been tainted by top-level resignations and a sensational ticket scandal.
'You can spend millions and build the finest facilities in the world, but the Games will still be a dismal failure unless their is a positive spirit among the people of Calgary,' Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein said in a recent interview. 'Right now, that spirit is lacking. But we are taking measures to improve things.
Klein is openly critical of the the XV Olympic Winter Games Organizing Committee -- known by its official acronym OCO '88 -- despite being a volunteer member of its board of directors.
He was instrumental in forming an OCO committee to review the public's perception of the organizers. The report, issued in late November, confirmed his worst fears.
'OCO '88, apparently in a desire to protect its commercial interests, appears to have adopted a posture which is seen by the community to characterize a closed and secretive, private organization,' the report concluded.
The report surprised no one. Three weeks before its release, OCO ticket manager James McGregor was arrested and charged with theft, fraud and mischief involving the disbribution of ticket order forms to the United States.
About 8,000 forms were sent to the United States by World Tickets Inc., 99-percent owned by McGregor, requesting payment in U.S. dollars rather than Canadian dolars, worth about 28 percent less. Police also said stationery and computer files were stolen from OCO offices.
OCO's handling of the matter was peculiar, to say the least. When the scam was uncovered in early October, OCO placed McGregor on a one-month leave, saying the ticket manager was suffering from 'stress.'
A month later, McGregor was fired a few hours after his first court appearance. OCO said the dismissal was 'totally independent of the police investigation.'
Although McGregor's arrest sent shockwaves through the international Olympic community, it was another ticket scandal that drew scorn from the 640,000 residents of Calgary.
In early October, local taxpayers learned 396,000 of the 1.7 million tickets available were being reserved for 'non-public orders' - OCO vocabulary for corporate cronies, political hacks and Olympic VIPs.
In some of the most high-profile events, such as speed skating and hockey, as many as 50 percent of the tickets were classified 'non-public.'
The public, repeatedly told only 10 percent of the tickets would go to the 'Olympic family,' was outraged. Angry letters filled the city's two newspapers for weeks.
The matter was complicated by poor public relations.
'It would have helped if they had informed people that a lot of these tickets will go back to the public through promotional contests,' Klein explained.
Klein blames OCO's problems on the rush to get Calgary's new sports facilities built in time for this winter's pre-Olympic competitions.
The man in charge of building these facilities was OCO President Bill Pratt, a blunt Calgary businessman known more for construction skills than diplomacy.
'Mr. Pratt is a doer,' Klein says. 'He was good for the building stage, but he's not neccessarily the best communicator. It's time to stop talking about money and get back to the basic Olympic principles of sport and youth.'
OCO recently appointed Frank King, a popular local businessman, as OCO's new chief executive officer.
'We've been too busy getting the facilities constructed, so we've had our head down,' King said. 'We haven't gone out and met the people face to face.'
But even if King stirs enthusiasm, OCO still faces serious questions about its facilities.
That point recently was made by Horst Bulau, Canada's premier ski jumper, at the opening ceremonies of Calgary's $43 million Olympic Park, which houses four ski jumping towers and a luge and bobsled track.
Bulau was scheduled to jump off the 70-meter tower to celebrate the park's opening. But he refused at the last minute, declaring the jump unsafe. Bulau failed to stop on the outrun of an earlier test jump and hurtled 45 feet into gravel. His skis were ruined and his leg slightly grazed.
Four days later, the jump site came under further criticism by many international athletes gathering for Calgary's first test competition.