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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM

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Vancouver's Olympics: The Sea to Sky Games | 'The Winter Olympics'

An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Guide to the Winter Olympics

Prepare for the 2010 Games with excerpts and spectator's guides from "The Winter Olympics," by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Excerpt chapters

Olympics Spectator's Guide

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It is a city known for going nuts from time to time. But usually not this early in the day. On the morning of July 2, 2003, GM Place, a stadium that is normally the home of screaming fans of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, was filled with 10,000 screaming fans of a potential Olympic Games—at about 5:30 in the morning.

You have to get up early if you want to land an Olympics. The time warp was made necessary by the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), gathered to select the host city for the 2010 Winter Games, was meeting at midday in Prague, Czech Republic. So the Vancouver organizers opened the doors at dawn, allowing members of the public to file in for the big announcement, shown on the stadium’s scoreboard video screens.

It wasn’t just the public sitting there, anxious, fidgeting, not wanting to think about what would happen if the decision went the other way. The heart of Canada’s Olympic movement was there, too: athletes, coaches, sponsors, politicians, and business tycoons. Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, he of the notorious one-toke-over-the-line performance-impeding drug bust after winning the first-ever gold medal in snowboarding at Nagano, was sitting in a portable chair right about at what normally would be GM Place’s hockey-rink blue line. He looked nervous. Everybody did. You could cut the tension with a plastic yogurt spoon from a Tim Horton’s, and some people were.

By 7:30 am, a buzz began sweeping through the building. You could literally see it start at the stage in the center of the rink and spread through the crowd of VIPs, then up into the stands. An announcement had been issued from Prague: Salzburg, one of three candidate cities for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, had been eliminated in the first round of voting.

The collective sigh of relief nearly blew the doors open in the arena service tunnels. Salzburg had been considered the chief rival of Vancouver, which, along with alpine partner Whistler, was seeking to host the first Winter Games on the west coast of North America in 50 years. The reasoning behind this relief was obvious: The other host candidate was Pyeongchang, South Korea. And recent saber-rattling across the border in North Korea made any international event on the Korean peninsula seem unlikely.

Canada felt ready to party. But another hour dragged by, with no word from Prague, and the nervousness returned. And for good reason, it later turned out: Unbeknownst to Canadians, Pyeongchang had actually led the balloting in the first count but couldn’t pull a solid enough majority to end the matter there. The final selection would depend on the split of those Salzburg voters seeking new suitors. In the end, most of them switched to Vancouver, which had serenaded delegates with a slick, heart-tugging music video of spectacular scenic backdrops, set to Vancouver rocker Bryan Adams’ song “Here I Am.”

Canada’s thriving green, white, and blue city on the salt water had won the Games of the XXI Winter Olympiad by a mere three votes, 56–53.

When IOC President Jacques Rogge made the announcement via video, the crowd went berserk. Fireworks banged. Thousands of grown adults stood and hugged one another and cried. Music played, and people danced. You almost expected someone to produce the Stanley Cup, hold it high over their head, kiss it, and then pass it around.

It was exultation, yes, but mostly relief. Vancouver’s flirtation with the Olympic Games was no new spur-of-the-moment idea. Various groups in the province of British Columbia, in fact, had been submitting bids for various Olympics since 1968. The village of Whistler itself had been founded as part of a developer’s dream to draw the Winter Games to a tiny site and build around them, much as the organizers of the last western North American Games, at Squaw Valley, California, had done in 1960.

Over the years, a certain amount of momentum had built up, and before this vote, it had reached a near crescendo in B.C., where some 50,000 people had already come forward to act as the 25,000 needed Games volunteers.

Now, with the vote secured, Vancouverites and Whistler residents spent a full day partying. And then set to work to the task at hand, which, by any measure, was sobering.

A Daunting Task

Vancouver, the largest, warmest, wettest metro area ever to host a Winter Games, would need a budget of $1.7 billion (Canadian) to build venues and other Olympic infrastructure and operate the Games. It would need $200 million—and likely much more—just for security. It would need even more money for other, off-budget yet critical work, such as a costly light-rail project. It would need to turn the precipitously cliff-hanging Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler into a safe, efficient, multilane freeway. In a Canadian province that is extremely sensitive to environmental degradation, it would need to build a giant bobsled/luge run on the face of Blackcomb Mountain, and carve out a large area in the nearby peaceful, forested Callaghan Valley to build ski jumps and cross-country trails.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee, or VANOC, would need to build an expanded hockey rink at the University of British Columbia, a new speedskating oval to the south, in Richmond, and a new curling rink in the central city. It would need to finance and launch the tripling in size of a cruise-ship terminal/convention center at water’s edge into a sprawling media center; it would need to rebuild Pacific Place, an aging ice arena, into a modern facility for the world’s best figure skaters. At the time it also believed that it would need to revamp the very building we all stood in that morning, GM Place, to accommodate the larger, Olympic-sized ice rink for the medal rounds of hockey.

There was more: Outside, just across the street, stood B.C. Place Stadium, another timeworn public building. This stadium, with an air-supported fabric roof, had seen better days. The home of the B.C. Lions football team would need to be spruced up to literally host the world in opening and closing ceremonies—the first in Olympic history to unfold indoors. And within a few years, a violent winter storm would make it clear that the building didn’t just need detailing—it needed an entirely new roof.

The truth is, there was a lot more. But this was the public outline everyone knew by heart.

Hearts and minds needed to be swayed as well. While the Olympic organizing effort had received solid support from the general public, not everyone was sold. Vancouver is a progressive city with a strong bent toward using public resources directly for the public good, whether that be healthcare, community services, or, increasingly, housing programs to get the city’s burgeoning homeless population—attracted to Vancouver from around Canada in part because of its mild winter weather—off the streets. Some politically active Vancouverites saw spending in excess of $2 billion on a 17-day festival for men and women in sausage-casing speed suits, all for the amusement of “Olympic Family” jet-setters, to be an abomination.

Five years later, a handful of them still do. An impressive countdown clock in downtown Vancouver has been vandalized with paint bombs by Olympic opponents. Demonstrations by environmentalist and First Nations aboriginal groups have delayed—but never stopped—the massive, $600 million Sea to Sky Highway program. When IOC members visited the city in February 2008 for a progress report, protesters strained against riot police in an attempt to enter their hotel conference room and let their thoughts be known directly, face-to-face.

Olympic supporters, however, can point, justifiably and proudly, to what has been accomplished in those same five years since the bid.

“Own the Podium”

Canadians still smart over the paltry home-country medal count at the nation’s two other Olympics—Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988. The home team collected nary a gold medal in the Montreal Summer Games, which also turned into a financial disaster. And remarkably, it failed to garner gold again at the Calgary Games, where Canada’s best results were silver medals won by figure skaters Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley.

Canada has vowed to avoid a repeat of that embarrassment. This determination quickly morphed into an actual public/private partnership known as Own the Podium, whose goal is what the name, in no uncertain terms, indicates. Canada expects to do what America did with its Games at Salt Lake City in 2002—use the home snow and ice advantage to post its most impressive winter results ever.

Money is a major portion of this effort: The federal government and private donors put up $110 million to cover enhanced training and other costs. But venue access is another crucial element of the program. The goal is to maximize Canadian athletes’ prep time on the field of play. This is particularly important in the bobsled/luge/skeleton competitions and in alpine and Nordic skiing, where venues differ greatly from place to place and familiarity breeds athletic confidence. Certainly, test events will bring the world’s greatest athletes to compete on Vancouver’s 2010 ski runs and ice sheets, for World Cup play and other competition. But completion of the venues almost two years in advance of the Games should also give home athletes practice time that no competitors can come close to matching.

Just one example: The men’s downhill run, at Whistler, will be run on a course that’s been reconfigured since the last World Cup race on the run, a decade ago. No World Cup races will be run there before the Olympics. Only Canadian skiers will have access to the intricacies of its bumps, jumps, and curves. This isn’t a novel Canadian concept. Other nations have done the same at other Olympics, with varying degrees of success.

The Venues

Of course, nothing is more key to the Own the Podium goal—or to the success of an Olympics itself—than the venues. Vancouver’s, like those in many other modern host cities, will be spread out across a fairly large region. But unlike other recent Games, particularly those in the Alps of Europe, the 2010 venues are split almost equally between two places, depending on whether they involve ice or snow.

The opening and closing ceremonies and all the flat ice events—hockey, figure skating, speedskating, short track, and curling—will take place in Vancouver and environs, connected by an efficient public transit service consisting of buses, light rail, and ferries:

  • Hockey will be spread between a greatly expanded ice facility at the University of British Columbia, or UBC, on the city’s west side, and Canada Hockey Place (as GM Place has been renamed for the duration of the Games), in the downtown central district. After receiving the bid, VANOC was faced with a tab of up to $10 million to reconfigure 18,630-seat GM Place to accommodate an Olympic-sized ice rink, which is about 4.5 meters (15 feet) wider than NHL ice. But the group successfully petitioned the International Hockey Federation to break with 84 years of tradition and allow Olympic hockey to be played on NHL-sized ice. From that moment on, the rink was ready to go. UBC Thunderbird Arena, which will seat 7,200, is expected to see its first play by the winter of 2009.

  • Figure skating will take place on Olympic-sized ice at the remodeled Pacific Coliseum, on the city’s east side. The building, which will seat 14,239 for the Olympics, will also be the home of short-track speedskating, one of the Winter Games’ most visually spectacular events.

  • Curling will commence on new ice sheets at a revamped facility near Nat Bailey Stadium, in Hillcrest Park.

  • Speedskating will unfold at the Richmond Oval, part of a major new waterfront development project in the city’s south suburb, near the airport. It is the first Olympic Oval ever built at near sea level. An extension of the city’s elevated light-rail system southward to Vancouver International Airport should ease access to this facility.

The snow events, for the most part, will be based in and around Whistler, the vacation-resort village home to about 10,000 full-time residents, swelling to 55,000 when its many hotels and condos are fully booked:

  • Alpine skiing will take place on the face of Whistler, where the men’s downhill run, named after famed “Crazy Canuck” ski racer Dave Murray, is a former World Cup site. The newly configured women’s downhill run will be one of the steepest in the world.

  • Cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined, and biathlon will take place at Whistler Olympic Park, a completely new facility carved out of mostly untrammeled forest west of Whistler.

  • Sliding sports will be held at the new Whistler Sliding Centre, tucked between Whistler and Blackcomb ski resorts.

Whistler will also have its own athletes’ village, media housing and work facilities, and medals plaza for nightly awards ceremonies.

The exceptions to the city/mountain division are the sports of freestyle skiing and snowboarding, both of which will take place at Cypress Mountain, a popular alpine and cross-country day-skiing area in the hills of West Vancouver, 20 minutes out of downtown. Cypress will host the traditional freestyle moguls and aerials contest for skiers, as well as the halfpipe and parallel giant slalom races, plus the popular snowboard cross races, which debuted in Turin. All are spectator events with a powerful “wow” factor and likely will be well attended.

Many of the venues will double as venues for the Paralympic Games, which run right after the Olympics, from March 12 to March 21. The Paralympics, an international event for disabled athletes held annually since 1960 (for summer events) and 1976 (for the Winter Games), will feature 1,700 athletes from six different disability groups. They will compete in alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon, sledge hockey, and wheelchair curling, using the same venues as the Olympic Games.

The Deadly Wild CardCoastal Weather

All of these venues appear to be well constructed, well planned, carefully designed, and ready to roll. And about half of them could see all of that foresight go for naught if the weather fails to cooperate. What most people don’t realize about Whistler Blackcomb, a global snow-play destination consistently rated tops in North America for skiing and snowboarding, is that it sits at a relatively low elevation, at close proximity to salt water.

The dual ski mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb offer truly spectacular terrain and a full mile of vertical drop—the largest in North America. But to offer good skiing at all times somewhere on the mountains, they really need all that vertical. The base village at Whistler is just a touch over 600 meters (2,000 feet) in elevation. Snow is always ample here by mid-February, so that shouldn’t be a concern. But at some point nearly every winter, the area is struck by “Pineapple Express” storms that batter B.C. and the northwestern United States with warm, wet weather straight from the South Pacific.

What that often means in Whistler Village is rain, which could create havoc with alpine ski events requiring a hard, fast course. And what it means on the mountains above, sometimes, is fog. Not just your ordinary, this-is-a-nuisance fog, but blinding, I-can’t-find-my-way-off-the-mountain fog. If it were to set in and stay during scheduled high-speed, dangerous events such as the downhill or super-G, scheduling mayhem could occur.

Then again, the weather might cooperate. When the weather is fine, few ski mountains in the world are as pleasant a place to be as Whistler Blackcomb. In fact, a World Cup men’s and women’s alpine ski event took place at Whistler in mid-February 2008, and came off with nary a hitch, weather or otherwise, with the race surfaces earning high marks from the world’s best skiers.

Another potential problem spot is Cypress Mountain. At 914 meters (3,000 feet), Cypress sits 305 meters (1,000 feet) higher than Whistler Village but is closer to salt water. It too is prone to wet weather and fog. A World Cup aerials and moguls contest there in the winter of 2008 was shut down partway through when fog, rain, and warm temperatures rolled in and refused to leave. It was so foggy at the venue, in fact, that spectators could barely see the bottom of the moguls course right in front of them, let alone the top. By the end of the first scheduled day of competition, an army of volunteers was running around with snow shovels, scooping water that had formed in giant, hot-chocolate-colored lakes at the base area.

It was a wakeup call to VANOC—as well as an embarrassment, said local media. A headline in the Vancouver Province said it all: “Worst fears realized as mild weather wreaks havoc at 2010 ski venue.” Canadian officials did all they could do—they took it in stride.

“It’s really a matter of us to have some really solid contingency plans for when this happens,” said Cathy Priestner Allinger, vice president of sport for VANOC.

Ice sports in the city, conversely, should unfold on schedule, barring unforeseen events. But typical Vancouver weather in February—light rain and about 41 degrees F—does present an aesthetic challenge for the Games. A majority of Olympic spectators very well could visit the Games and attend many events without ever seeing a flake of snow.

Fortunately, all the major networks will have a stockpile of footage showing the city and its surrounding mountains at its sun-splashed, snowy best.

B.C. and VancouverNothing in the World Like Them

Let there be no mistake: Vancouver and its environs, when the weather cooperates, are stunning, and together they will form a unique and perhaps unforgettable Winter Olympic backdrop. No Winter Olympics have ever been attempted at a place like it: a large, diverse, metropolitan, sophisticated urban area with a backdrop of blue salt water and stunning snow-capped mountains.

The city, 38 kilometers (24 miles) north of the U.S. border, is as majestic as any in North America. It is bordered to the north by Burrard Inlet, an inland finger of salt water stretching to the Strait of Georgia and then the Pacific Ocean, and to the south by the massive Fraser River, whose sprawling delta cradles the city and 20 other local municipalities in a 3,000-square-kilometer (1,158-square-mile) triangle. Nearly every way you turn in the city, a waterfront is not far away.

Vancouver is consistently rated one of the top vacation spots in the world by major travel magazines. It is home to 180 municipal parks, including its forested crown jewel, Stanley Park, which occupies a large peninsula in Burrard Inlet, near the city center. It has distinct, vibrant neighborhoods, including the largest Chinatown in North America. Indeed, it’s a city that has nearly everything, from mind-blowing sushi to great coffee to mile after mile of waterfront bike paths and hundreds of acres of in-city forestland. Vancouver has a large, modern, international airport, with ample direct service to both Europe and Asia, which lie in nearly equal distances in opposite directions. To put it simply, there’s a reason it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in all of North America.

Likewise, Whistler is tough to beat as a mountain-resort destination, offering the comforts of fine hotels and the rugged allure of real wilderness—with real bears, real mountain lions, real lakes and trees, and really big rocks—right outside of town.

All of this will look spectacular in the opening TV montages. Count on it.

Of course, Vancouver also has its uglier side, including a large homeless population and an active drug culture—acknowledged, in a practice that would be shocking to neighbors to the south, by government health officials who sometimes distribute drugs to addicts, to keep them on an even keel.But the city, its surrounding province, and its surrounding nation are likely to put on a show that makes those problem areas a minor footnote.

Marketing studies point to a population eager not simply to host the Games, but to attend them as well. Selling the estimated 1.6 million tickets for these Games should not be a problem. (Editor's note: In fact, most have already sold since this book went to press.) Interest among Canadian winter-sports fanatics is expected to be high, and these Games will be smack in the center of a population center of 2.3 million people (actually, more than 5 million if you factor in the population of metropolitan Seattle, just 193 kilometers [120 miles] to the south).

Games organizers, sensitive to criticism about the prices and availability of tickets at previous Olympics, vowed to make more tickets and more affordable options available for hometown spectators (as opposed to, say, higher-paying foreign groups, which buy tickets in blocks). They promised to sell more than 100,000 Games tickets (about 6 percent of the total) for $25 Canadian, and said that half of all Games tickets will be sold for $100 or less. Tickets for premium events, however, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, the men’s and women’s figure skating finals, and most hockey, especially the medal rounds, are likely to seem prohibitively expensive to many fans.

The Games’ Lasting Legacy

With that degree of public interest, the 2010 Games, barring some unforeseen hang-ups, have all the elements needed to make Maple Leaf Nation proud. Canada’s last Winter Games, in Calgary, were considered a success by the IOC because of their organization and expansion of winter events. Unlike many other Olympics, they also were completed without any legacy of debt to rankle otherwise supportive politicians in Alberta or Ottawa.

And that might be the ultimate factor in judging the success of Vancouver’s Games. To land a modern Olympics, the host city and provincial government must literally put their credit on the line, stipulating that local taxpayers, not the IOC, are responsible for any cost overruns beyond the Games’ roughly $2 billion budget. That’s a lot to ask and has scared away many other potential Olympic cities.

Vancouverites, however, seem to have embraced the challenge, so profound is their wish to put their own unique, natural, coastal Canadian brand on a worldwide tradition such as the Olympics. VANOC officials believe that the Games, if they operate as planned, will leave a profit solid enough to operate most of the Games facilities into perpetuity as “legacy venues.”

The UBC ice rink will be used for university and community sports and training. The Richmond Oval will be a community athletic center and continue to host major speedskating competitions and other sports events. B.C. Place will continue as a government-owned pro sports arena. The curling center will maintain some of its ice sheets, with the rest of its space converted to a community facility with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Pacific Place Coliseum will continue to be a multipurpose arena for minor league hockey and many other events. Canada Hockey Place will go back to being GM Place and the home of the Vancouver Canucks, a venue for concerts and the like. Cypress Mountain will revert to its pre-Games use as a popular recreational ski and snowboard venue.

In Whistler, the scenic, naturally beautiful Whistler Olympic Park, in a mountainous, forested valley with spectacular views of surrounding Coast Range peaks, will be a recreational and competition center for cross-country skiing, biathlon, and ski jumping (most of it already is open to recreational use well in advance of the Olympics). Whistler Sliding Centre will remain an international training and competition facility for bobsled, luge, and skeleton athletes, complementing the single existing sled track at Calgary. It might, as have other tracks after their Games use, also offer public rides on bobsleds or modified luge sleds.

The noncompetition venues will find noncompetition uses: The media centers will revert to their convention center role, and the athletes’ villages will be converted to housing—providing, in Whistler, some much-needed affordable residences for workers in the town’s thriving tourist industry and others.

The key to all this, of course, is money. The Games must generate enough cash to pay the bills and leave an endowment for the future, to prevent the Olympic facilities from becoming white elephants, as they have in some other Olympic host cities. Some IOC critics, in the wake of massive cost overruns and public subsidies of the Games in Athens in 2002 and, to a much lesser extent, in Turin in 2006 (loss estimates vary between $80 million and more than $200 million), have begun to argue that re-creating the massive, costly Olympic infrastructure in a new locale every two years is folly; they say the Olympics should rotate between two or more “permanent” homes, where competitions can be repeated with little public investment.

The IOC has resisted this notion, for obvious reasons. Olympic advocates are borderline evangelical about the value of the Olympic experience. For every bad taste left in the mouth of a host city, they point to other examples of the Olympic Games becoming a unique source of national pride—a coming together of the people of the host nation that proves almost magical. And they’re right: The Summer Games of Sydney in 2000 and the Winter Games of Lillehammer in 1994 are strong examples of that very phenomenon. The IOC still believes that its mission is to bring that same experience, and offer that same opportunity, to people around the world who’ve never touched it before. As long as people are still willing to foot the bills, the IOC will be willing to bring the Games to them.

Putting On a Good Show

Like Americans, Canadians appreciate a good show and a good party. And the Sea to Sky Games should provide exactly that. Canada, more than perhaps any Olympic nation except Norway, knows and loves winter sports. From jam-packed, screaming throngs at hockey games to exuberant, multinational crowds for alpine skiing in Whistler—already a notable party town well before the Olympic bid was awarded—look for these to be an Olympics to remember. Even curling—yes, curling—is likely to draw large throngs in Canada, which is home, by various estimates, to 80 to 90 percent of the world’s curlers. Major curling tournaments, or bonspiels, draw large TV ratings in Canada. Bottom line: Don’t expect the empty-seats phenomenon that plagued the Olympics in Athens and Turin to strike Vancouver.

That sense of public ownership is key to any Olympics that go down in history as wildly successful. Although some opposition to the Vancouver Games remains, opinion polls show broad public support for the effort. Vancouverites, above all else, are immensely proud of the city they’ve built for themselves, and they see the Games as a way to show it off to the world. That’s the same sentiment one sensed in Sydney before their Games, and it translated into a special experience because of it.

On a larger scale, Olympic officials yearn for that magic to reappear in British Columbia for their own, more selfish reasons. Games that become a special event in their host nations tend to play better around the world on television, and TV inarguably is the economic engine driving the modern Games. And the fact is that recent trends in viewership of the Olympics, particularly the Winter Games, have not been good. IOC officials reported record global viewership for the Turin Games. But ratings in the lucrative American market were down. Journalists toiling away in Turin during the most hectic portion of those Games were dismayed to hear from home that the Games were drawing less of a national television share than a popular reality show, Dancing with the Stars.

For the Games to continue to re-create themselves every four years, that trend must not continue. Major television networks like NBC Universal, which owns a multibillion-dollar contract for the Olympics through 2012, are hoping the allure of Vancouver—and its proximity to the United States, placing major events in prime time for American markets—can help stem the tide of declining ratings. The Vancouver Games have the potential to do just that. New, TV-friendly sports like snowboard cross, which was launched to rave reviews in Turin, and now skier cross, to be competed for the first time at Cypress Mountain, have the potential to draw younger viewers more oriented to the X Games than the Olympic Games. And Americans have a natural affinity with, and ongoing curiosity about, their neighbors to the north, right across the longest undefended border on the planet.

“The world’s eyes are going to be on B.C.,” provincial premier Gordon Campbell said in a speech in early 2008. “And it will be your chance to show off the great diversity of B.C., the richness of our province and the vastness and diversity of our country.”

He then went a step further, bringing the focus back to where it really belongs.

“We’re going to be the best Olympics ever for athletes.”

Those are the dual standards by which great Olympics are judged. And when Sam Sullivan, then the popular quadriplegic mayor of Vancouver, rolled his wheelchair up a ramp to accept the Olympic flag from hosts in Turin, the eyes of the Olympic world shifted to B.C.

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