Rewind: The spirit of the Summer Games 1980s style

The citizens of Estevan are often accused of taking on crazy and unattainable challenges.

They stand guilty as charged.

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In February of 1978, a gang of Energy City residents figured it might be a good idea to play host to the 1980 provincial Summer Games.

The fact this community would be the smallest centre to host the event, didn’t phase local organizers, headed up by a young lawyer by the name of Ed Komarnicki, who agreed to take on the chairmanship of the organization committee if, in fact, Estevan was awarded the Games. First, Estevan had to impress the Games selection committee, since two other cities, Weyburn and Yorkton were also seeking approval as the Games site.

Although there were a few deficiencies in the city’s sports and recreational infrastructure, the city’s positive attitude and fierce determination to repair what needed to be repaired, or build what needed to be built, and organize what needed to be organized, and be damned with the odds, impressed the visiting assessment team.

The background work began then, just as it did two years ago when Estevan learned it was being awarded the 2016 Sask. Summer Games that begin this Sunday.

It was truly an interesting year for local citizens, a federal election was happening in the spring, a city councillor quit in mid-term, Saskatchewan’s first electric car went on sale right here in Energy City and the high school’s female basketball team captured a provincial championship, even before residents were able to focus on the Summer Games slated for late July.

In fact, the year opened in controversy as local ratepayers were arguing over a local petition and pending plebiscite regarding a proposed $264,000 addition to Hillcrest School and the rejection by the local public school board of a planned revival of Valley View School.

The decision was made not to renovate Hillcrest by adding a library and gymnasium, or to rebuild Valley View. The voters decided against the Hillcrest project with a 576 to 466 ballot count differential.

But while residents were obviously split on the topic of school renovations, they were on board in backing the Summer Games with, of course, the occasional, expected dissenters who are always available, if for nothing else other than to prove that democracy and the right for free expression, does exist.

On the political front, Estevan mayor Galen Wahlmeier and council were dealing with a sudden resignation of councillor John Deadlock while on the federal front, the Assiniboia Constituency, which included Estevan, was being contested by Progress Conservative candidate Leonard Gustafson NDP candidate Randy MacKenzie and Liberal selection Ralph Goodale, whose campaign was bolstered by an appearance of Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau who visited Estevan during the campaign, promising a crowd of 500 he would   double track the CN rail line between Winnipeg and Vancouver, if elected prime minister, to allow for the passage of 50 trains per day.

The PC’s countered with Canadian Transport minister Don Mazenkowski who arrived on the scene to help Gustafson’s cause with a rally in the Derrick Motor Hotel.

Gustafson prevailed at the polls, retaining the Assiniboia seat, edging Goodale 11,251 votes to 10,165 with MacKenzie drawing a respectable 9,710 supporters at the polls.

The Estevan Winter Festival was staged once again in late January with some changes made to the programming. A total of 20 young women contested the Festival Queen title.

With Deadlock’s resignation from council, a quick by election was called with Gerald Ross claiming the vacated seat over rivals Gary Breckenridge and John Empey.

On the building front, the city’s downtown mini-mall, Wicklow Centre, was coming along fine and on schedule, said contractor Robert Goud.

Over at J.R. Auto Electric, Bob Nixon was drawing headlines by being the first business person in the province to put a Canadian-made electrically powered car on sale. Nixon had signed a deal with Marathon Electric Vehicle Inc. of Montreal to put one of the 300 electric vehicles the company was making in his showroom. Nixon got vehicle No. 125 and was selling it for $7,000. The car featured a dozen six-volt batteries and a range of 50 miles. Completely drained, the vehicle would require eight hours to recharge. Accessories were fed by a separate battery and a gas heater that would supply 14 hours of high heat on just one gallon of fuel, The car could reach a maximum speed of 60 mph. The main feature, of course, was the running cost of about 2.6 cents per mile.

This newspaper wasn’t without its own detractors 36 years ago, with the publication coming under fire in the council chambers for stories and editorials that ran counter to council’s wishes and claims following resignations of Deadlock and the city’s recreation director Gilles L’Hereux.

On a happier front, the ECS Elecs girls’ hoopsters with coach Eldon Rondeau downed Moose Jaw Peacock High to claim the provincial 3A basketball championship led by the point-pouring talents of Janice Boey, Carla Mosley and Janice Lendvoy and the rebounding skills of Dana Tafelmeyer.

Before winter ended, 1,700 hockey fans flooded into the Civic Auditorium to watch the Montreal Old Timers hockey team defeat the local Strippers old timers in a fun-filled exhibition match complete with the cigar-smoking referee, Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

On the infrastructure front, the council passed a new budget that called for a six mill (9.7 per cent) tax increase and completed the $125,000 purchase of a 155-acre property in the Trojan subdivision east and south of the mall.

When it came time for the Mercury to focus on the preparations for the Games, around the end of April, officials were fretting over the fact that acquiring bunk beds for the athletes’ dormitories was becoming a problem. The Department of Culture and Youth had assured local organizers they had no need to worry, but had then turned around and dumped the issue on the local committee at the last minute, saying they didn’t have the funds to pick up 350 bunks. The committee went to work and found 170 bunks and were soliciting around the province for assistance, which they found, 40 and 50 bunks at a time, until they had 500 bunk beds, in time for the Games.

The hospitality team jumped their budget from $31,000 to $37,500 for meals, after learning they would be feeding athletes and coaches one more meal than what was originally planned. The chairman of that committee, Walter Wenaas, said it could be done, while also noting that inflation was eating into a lot of the Services Committee budget. Wenaas noted a new diving board, for instance, was coming in $250 over budget, while the price of baseballs had risen from $72 per dozen to $88.

On the volunteer front, Pat McGrath and Karen Empey were recruiting and handing out two-page application forms for volunteers to cover 17 sports and 43 other venues and needs such as ticket takers, security, cooks and play-by-play commentators.

Dave Matchett, chairman of the Games Finance Committee said in mid-May he was confident the Games would not go over budget, even in face of the inflationary pressures. The capital budget was remaining at $120,000 and the operating budget would stay at $160,000 with the City of Estevan contributing $40,000 to each, for a total $80,000 contribution.

Rusty Stuckey reported souvenir sales were accelerating with a lot of promotional items, especially T-shirts selling well. He felt the need to order 1,400 more T-shirts since it was expected many athletes and their families would be wanting to purchase those for keepsakes.

While Games preparations were accelerating into June and early July, the weather conditions couldn’t be more opposite to what this city was experiencing heading into this year’s version. Back in 1980, local producers and citizens were dealing with an ongoing drought and lack of water was becoming a real concern. This year, Estevan battled back flood conditions in order to play host to the event.

The chairpersons for the events were preparing for the athletic onslaughts with Jan Terhart and Hugh Hubenig covering sailing and water skiing, while Gray Shore was looking after the needs for those who would be trap shooting. The baseball, swimming and soccer scenes were covered off by the likes of Bev Hickie, Yvonne Muir and Paul Radomski and Irene Lemmons. There were track and field events to host and oversee along with archery and waterpolo and those problems were eased by Wayne Wallace, Harvey Grummett, Garry Wock and Jean Isley, while Debbie Kozak, Audrey Murphy and Kim Anderson tended to events like diving, golf and lacrosse.

Decisions were needed regarding the actual lighting of the Games’ flame and whether a stream of runners should carry the torch from Regina to Estevan, or whether the flame relay should be a more modest, Estevan-area only event. Those decisions were being made by volunteers such as Vern Buck.

Another minor glitch was handled adroitly when it was learned that judges for equestrian events were expecting to be paid. That request was denied, but the events still went off without a hitch in the halter classes.

By July 2, the Games had attracted over 700 volunteers with more needed. Last minute details needed to be tended to, such as some fresh paint at Met Stadium, finishing touches to the new track at ECS, a repositioning of the nine-metre diving board that had been installed at the eight-metre level and some fresh grass needed around a few venues plus a net for the hammer-throw at the track and field venue.

The Games committee learned that two promotional billboards placed along Highway 39 and 6 to attract visitors, had been removed by the Department of Highways because they were planted closer than 25 metres from the road. The signs were toted to Weyburn, and who knows, might still be there in storage.

The Games mascot, Lignite Louie, visited council chambers, and Games chairman Komarnicki issued the statement that “we’re ready to go,” on July 16.

The official opening was slated for the grandstand on the Exhibition grounds and co-chair for the sports venues, Rick Rohatyn said each sporting venue would have their own version of an opening ceremony.

Volunteers such as Cheryl Johnson and Jane Hiebert said they were ready on the tennis and field hockey fronts and Friends of the Games chairman Lyle Cundall said corporate sponsors had come through without putting a lot of financial stress on local businesses, who had been supporting sporting activities all year around, for many years, in Estevan.

The Mercury published a special 40-page tabloid edition to herald the arrival of the Games on July 23 and 3,000 people jammed into and around the grandstand to witness the opening that included music from the Junior High School and ECS Marching Bands and majorettes.

A total of 864 athletes were registered for the first three-day wave of action and opening day glitches were minor, such as non-compliant public address systems at one venue when it was learned local systems didn’t mesh with provincially-supplied equipment. Young Galen Wahlmeier Jr. suffered a burned hand while attempting to light the official Games cauldron that stubbornly refused to be lit on the first couple of attempts.

Premier Allan Blakeney and Culture and Youth Minister Ned Shillington welcomed the athletes from eight zones during the 80-minute ceremony.

When it was all said and done, Zone 1 (Southeast) captured the Griffiths Award for the most improved zone with a 22 per cent improvement. Saskatoon won their third consecutive title as the Games champions with 101 points followed by Zone 3 (Moose Jaw/Swift Current) with 99.5 points while Regina was third with 95.5.

Southeast swimmer Doug Munn of Oxbow was the top athlete for Zone 1, capturing seven medals in the pool, including three gold.

The Mercury ran a summary of all Games results, an effort that absorbed one and a quarter full news pages and then called for challengers for the city’s next big fun event, the late summer Great Race which would feature homemade, people-powered race cars tooling down Fourth Street.

It seems the fun never stops in the Energy City.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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