CALGARY -- In 1874, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were summoned here to bust up the rampant rot-gut whiskey trade going on among wild mountain men, fur traders, buffalo hunters and the Blackfoot and Blood Indian tribes. After all the coffin varnish, bug juice and poison had been smashed, the scarlet-clad Mounties built a camp on the prairie within sight of the Rocky Mountains, right where the Bow and Elbow rivers met. They called it Fort Calgary.

That wasn't so long ago. A few old-timers here actually knew some of those folks. When Calgarians proudly call this the Cowboy Olympics, it's not a cornball Hollywood joke. All the wild west pageantry at the opening ceremonies for these XV Winter Olympics wasn't hype and hysteria. Calgary still sees itself in those terms -- tough, independent, hospitable but ready to raise hell at the drop of a white stetson. Even Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein has called these Olympics a perfect excuse for the biggest 16-day party in the history of Alberta.

This is the right kind of place for people to jump off mountains or roar downhill at 70 mph on skis. The Olympic tradition of mayhem in the bobsled or luge holds little mystery hereabouts. Why not risk your fool neck for a thrill?

Few Calgarians would say that these are Canada's Olympics. Rather, these are western Canada's Olympics. Just a few years ago, when Calgary was in full boom-town brag, Klein said that "no Eastern {Canadian} bums and creeps" were welcome here. Economic times have been tougher since, but he won't recant.

Some call this city of 640,000 the Houston of the North; but that's only true if you're talking about the Texas of a couple of generations back. A rodeo or stampede is still at home here. This isn't Toronto.

Calgary is proud to be a hard-working, hard-partying cow-and-oil town that can't build skyscrapers fast enough. Rough edges are a badge of honor. A Vancouver bar once posted a sign during the Grey Cup saying, "No service will be provided at this bar to any Calgarian on a horse." You can two-step on 11th Avenue or listen to Junior Walker wail at Mad Jack's. The waitresses wear black spike pumps and black leather skirts here -- to serve breakfast. You come here for steak or the blues, hockey or the breakneck downhill. Ice dancing? Calgary may take a while to warm up to that one.

The all-purpose symbol of Calgary is the Chinook -- the warm wind that occasionally raises temperatures from 25 degrees below zero to close to 70 in a few hours. Calgarians claim they are more optimistic than many Canadians because, even on the coldest days, they can always hope that the Chinook will melt the snow before their very eyes like something out of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Didya hear the one about the cowboy who hitched his horse in front of the bar? By the time he got drunk, the Chinook had melted all the snow and the cowboy discovered that he'd actually hitched his horse to a church spire.

To say that Calgary wants to show the world what it's made of would be a hundredfold understatement. "Smile, you're a tourist attraction," the locals tell each other. As incredibly inept and greedy as Lake Placid was at hosting the '80 Games, that's just how prompt and honest Calgary has seemed. If security here seems nonexistent (and it does) perhaps that's because it's assumed that everybody here will avoid causing some trouble in a good cause.

Calgary wants something special to happen here, something memorable to match its sense of itself. This town tried to get The Games in '64, '68, '72, '80 and '84 and failed every time. Since September 1981, when Calgary was given these Games, this high-rise-on-the-steppes has lived for these 16 days of fame. Nobody, but nobody, has dared impede the civic bandwagon. Result: no cost overruns, no strikes, no construction delays and a $50 million surplus predicted.

Traditionally, Canadians have had to endure comments like that of Henry David Thoreau who said they had "rust" on them, as though they never really moved. Instead of American Can-Do spirit, the nation has been known for Maybe-We-Can-Do. "Things are going to get a whole lot worse," goes the Royal Canadian Air Force saying, "before they go bad."

Calgary doesn't see itself as part of that heritage; history isn't a spectator sport here. Whether the hunt is for buffalo, oil or a grubstake in the new computer industry, Calgarians like to think they grab for the gold. Turn them down five times for an Olympics and it just makes them want to put on the best one ever to prove the whole world was wrong.

Saturday afternoon, the buses and trains ran on time. The snow flurries and high winds calmed a bit and the sun came out just in time for the Olympic flame to be lit in full-to-bursting McMahon Stadium. The ceremonies were so splendid, crisp and energetic that even a confirmed parade-hater had to cheer for The Mounties on their 24 black horses doing close-order drill. What other Winter Olympics has begun with chuckwagon races and a cowgirl in pink tights riding upside down?

As these Olympics begin, we should not expect the predictable. Instead, we would probably be closer to the mark if we expected the almost unbelievable. Think about the greatest sports sages of the '80s -- or even just the past year. Who thought Sugar Ray Leonard would beat Marvin Hagler or that the Minnesota Twins and Washington Redskins would win the World Series and Super Bowl?

For weeks, every event here has been analyzed to dust and calibrated as though there was little reason to hold the competitions at all. However, U.S. figure skater Jill Trenary -- one of those chance-for-a-bronze types -- spoke for many athletes here when she said this week, "It's not written beforehand who's going to win. Most of us have been through it all. We've been upset when we didn't think we could lose and we've won when no one thought we could. So athletes are more realistic. We know that anything can happen . . . You always dream of that performance of a lifetime, the one where you know it as it's happening, after it's happened and 20 years later."

Calgary has given the Games one of its most fascinating venues -- a clean and civilized, but still vigorous and authentic West. Now, as 2 billion people watch, can the Cowboy Olympics live up to the stage that Calgary has set?