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January 10, 1988|JEFF FELLENZER | Times Staff Writer

ALGARY, Canada — This city has some big-time explaining to do. Its collective curtain is about to be pulled for the whole world to see, but unlike the red-faced Great Wizard in the Land of Oz, it can't wait to tell the truth.

Ever since an enterprising trick roper named Guy Weadlick organized the first Calgary Stampede in September of 1912, Calgarians have lived with an image of their city in Alberta as a cowboy town where the locals hang out in neighborhood saloons and the preferred topics are bull riding and steer wrestling, not free trade.

That will change soon enough, however, since Calgary is serving as host city for the upcoming XV Winter Olympic Games (Feb. 13-28). Officials are estimating about 1.6 million people will visit Calgary during the Games.

Visitors looking for a honky-tonk good time are advised to leave their six-shooters at home; folks here are as partial to tailored business suits and good wine as their urban American neighbors to the south. Fact: Calgary has more computers per capita than any city in North America, except Houston, which just happens to be the city it is most often compared to, both in appearance and production.

One look at Calgary's imposing steel-and-glass skyline and it's easy to see why. Like the gawky teen-ager still trying to fit naturally into an evolving frame, growth has come quickly and dramatically to this city of 650,000, which makes it the fifth-largest in Canada.

"Seven years ago you could have counted 45 tower cranes working away in the downtown area," says a lifelong Calgarian, gazing out the window from a table at the revolving Panorama Room atop the downtown Calgary Tower.

In those boom days of the late '70s and early '80s, the city sold more than $1 billion a year in building permits to eager contractors anxious to capitalize on a population growth rate that averaged 8.3% a year between 1955 and 1986. If you haven't been here in 10 years, you may not recognize downtown.

The Tower (101 9th Ave. S.W.), identifiable as the city's post card landmark, stands 626 feet and bears a strong resemblance to the Seattle Space Needle. It costs $2.75 Canadian ($2 for youths 13 to 17,$1 for children 6-12, 5 and under are free) to take an elevator ride to the top and get a breathtaking view of the city and the vast Alberta plains beyond. Sunsets, especially, can be memorable.

Calgary is Canada's undisputed oil and energy capital. In fact, of the country's 620 oil companies, 590 are headquartered here. It's the oil, energy and beef ("The best beef I've ever had," a recent visitor told me) that has given Alberta a reputation as the "Texas of Canada."

For 10 days every July, at least, no one in these parts will dispute that. When it's time for the Calgary Stampede at Stampede Park, it seems everything in the city gets put on the back burner of the ol' ranch stove. Oil moguls, postal workers and cab drivers alike are instantly transformed into cowboys and cowgirls. It's Canada's biggest costume party.

The city's best-known country western hangouts, the Ranchmen's Club and the Longhorn, come alive. Days are filled with events like the Half Million Dollar Rodeo, Chuckwagon Races and Frontier Casino, and there is nightly grandstand entertainment. No wonder the Stampede is also known as the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth."

Next month an even bigger show hits town, and the same Olympic fever that gripped Los Angeles for two unforgettable weeks in the summer of '84 appears to be taking hold.

"Everybody's excited," says Mick Butson, a mustachioed bellman at the venerable downtown Palliser hotel, which sits next to the Calgary Tower. Butson's vigor and enthusiasm belies his more than 57 years, the last 27 of which have been spent in Calgary.

"Someone told me it was like the Stanley Cup, World Series and Grey Cup all put together. I can't imagine what it will be like."

Neither can Gus Kwaczek, a retired income tax auditor and one of 250 volunteers staffing the Calgary Olympic Centre. Kwaczek figures it's his first--and last--opportunity to be part of the Olympic Games. He and his wife will be one of a thousand couples square dancing during the opening ceremonies at McMahon Stadium.

Noting his former line of work, Kwaczek adds with a laugh: "Besides, I came here to make friends."

Kwaczek and other Olympic Centre volunteers such as Clare Goetz, she of the gray hair and perpetual smile, are making plenty of friends. It was Goetz who caught up with a visitor from California 20 minutes after he had left the Centre to give him an Olympic pin for a family member who collects them.

The Centre (free admission) is a must-see; it offers visitors an array of Olympic exhibits, memorabilia, slide shows and hands-on activities, including a simulated bobsled run and ski jump.

Ever wondered what it feels like to jump off the top of a mountain and soar through the air, hurtling helplessly toward a snow-covered strip of land? Then try the ski jump and let your imagination move you.

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