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Alta states

Beyond 2010: Preparing for the other side of the Olympic tunnel

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Innovation. Bold thinking. Challenging the status quo. These are the conceptual pillars upon which Whistler was built. And it worked. In less than four decades, Whistler has managed to create a niche for itself very near the top of the mountain resort pantheon. But as groovy as we’ve become over the years — as much as we love patting each other on the back for becoming such important players on the global stage — it’s vital that we remind ourselves from time-to-time how fundamental these principles are to our future success. Particularly now…

As our two-week Olympic party quickly approaches, like a Tsunami on an unsuspecting fisherman, most Whistlerites are finally coming to realize just how much of a workload hosting such a global media orgy entails. From construction workers to municipal administrators, from Whistler-Blackcomb staff to the teachers in the local schools, everyone in town seems to be functioning at full-tilt boogie these days. And that’s a good thing. Up to a point…

For the greatest danger now lies in getting caught in such narrow tunnel vision as to forget that we’ll soon become responsible again for managing our own destiny. I can’t help but worry. With everyone scurrying around trying to fulfil the needs of the IOC and its Games-related concerns — or to quickly jump on the bandwagon for extra Olympic goodies — no one in power at Whistler seems to be looking beyond those two very busy weeks in February anymore. Think I’m exaggerating again? Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a Swiss acquaintance of mine. He needed help, he said. Just couldn’t get though to the right people, he admitted. Tell me more, I answered. In response, the long-time event promoter gave me an account of his interaction with a cabal of Whistler decision-makers that blew my mind…

Here’s a bit of background. The founder and current director of the Verbier Xtreme — a very successful big-mountain freeride contest in Switzerland modelled on big-wave surfing events — Nicolas Hale-Wood has one of the most creative minds in the event business today. After all, this is the same guy who single-handedly created the Swiss Surf Team and then convinced Victorinox to sponsor his squad by showing up at their corporate office with surfboards already painted as Swiss army knives. “We certainly weren’t the best surfers at that year’s World Championships,” he told me. “But we were the most colourful — and definitely got the most attention…”

Taking a page from Doug Perry’s event management style, Hale-Wood has devoted the last few years to developing mountain-based events that combine adrenaline sports, live music and cutting-edge youth culture. And by all accounts, he’s been hugely successful at it. “I really enjoy competing at his events,” says local big-mountain hero, Ian Macintosh. “What I like most is that he really runs a tight ship. The vibe is totally relaxed, but the organizers are total professionals.”

So there you have it. Anyway, Hale-Wood has just put the finishing touches on a global circuit of big-mountain ski-and-snowboard contests with stops at some of the world’s most prestigious resorts — places like Verbier and Tignes in France and Mammoth Mountain in California. Even Sochi, Russia is on board. Boasting high-profile sponsors and extensive European TV distribution, Nicolas told me he’d had little problem convincing his partner-resorts to get involved. “I was treated like a king at Mammoth,” he says, marvelling at how excited the Californians were to be included in the mix. “These guys really rolled out the red carpet for me…”

Maybe that’s because they’d heard how energized both the riders and sponsors were about the new circuit. Listen to Guerlain Chicherit, four-time freeride world champion and stage winner on the ’06 Paris–Dakar Rally: “I’ve been waiting for a long time for a real World Tour that is professionally organized and has sponsors that deserve the name ‘sponsor’,” he told me recently. “Now it is finally born and I’m ready to give it my unconditional support.”

Then there’s Peter Mager of Swatch: "We’ve been part of the extreme sports world for many years,” he said. “And we know what Hale-Wood and his team can do. That’s why we’re so proud to be part of this new freeride adventure."

A savvy event promoter. Happy sponsors. A lucrative TV deal. And the whole-hearted support of the world’s best freeriders. So what’s not to love?

That’s why, Nicolas admitted, he was totally flummoxed by his reception at Whistler. “I checked with my friends at the IOC, and they told me exactly which guy I should speak with,” he said. “And at first he seemed receptive… then something changed.”

He told me he was all set to travel here to meet with the appropriate municipal mucky mucks, when an e-mail from muni hall stopped him dead in his tracks. Here’s what it said (remember: this is even before he’d had a chance to make an initial presentation):

Hello Nicolas,

Upon further reflection, and in the interest of ensuring that you do not incur any unnecessary travel costs, this is to advise you that there is NO POSSIBILITY of hosting an Association of Freeriding Professionals event in Whistler anytime prior to the 2010/2011 season. Even then, an extensive review will be required before consideration will be given to hosting an AFP event in Whistler.

This decision reflects input from both the Resort Municipality of Whistler (the local government) and Whistler/Blackcomb, and was reached after a review of the demands that will be placed on Whistler over the next 3 years as we prepare for, and ultimately host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

On behalf of the Municipality and Whistler/Blackcomb, thank you for your interest in Whistler, and for your understanding of our joint decision. Best wishes in all your endeavours.

Sincerely,

John Rae

PS: cc'd are Stuart Rempel, W/B Senior Vice President Sales &Marketing; Peter "YP" Young, W/B Events Manager; Jim Godfrey, RMOW Executive Director Whistler 2010. I’m not an unreasonable person. I could understand turning down Hale-Wood’s proposal after hearing him out. After all, Whistler is clearly a busy town. But making a negative decision before even meeting up with the guy? Who the heck is in charge of the asylum?

I mean, didn’t John Rae write to Pique two weeks ago stating: "The Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb will continue working... to create an environment that will attract third party event organizers and foster the successful delivery of major events in Whistler.”

Funny thing, too. When I brought it up with W-B “resort chief” David Brownlie, he admitted that he hadn’t heard of Hale-Wood’s proposal. I got pretty much the same response from our esteemed mayor, Ken Melamed. Nobody I spoke to had even heard about the new freeride circuit.

Which begs the question: Who is actually making the decisions for Whistler right now? And why are these decisions being made in the dark?

Those questions aside, it really makes me worry when I hear that Whistler is no longer considering hosting new events — at least until 2011. Why? Because it goes against every principle that made this place what it is today!

Have we not identified the need for economic diversity in this valley? Do we not realize that we have to build a “post-Games” event strategy now (and not in February 2010)? I mean, once the IOC sets its sights on Sochi, Whistler will be old news with everyone but the local press. So then what?

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. What event better suits Whistler’s personality than a world-class, big-mountain freeride contest? I love ski racing — and downhill is my passion — but anyone who has ever spent anytime working on the Dave Murray course knows only too well what a crap shoot our local weather makes of conventional ski races. As much as some of us would like to argue the contrary, there are countless resorts around the world whose climatic conditions offer a much greater chance of success in these kinds of events. Furthermore, one only has to recall the mud fest at the recent World Snowboarding Championships to realize that we sometimes do ourselves more harm than good by trying to force our round nature into a square hole.

But freeride? That’s why over 2 million skiers and riders come to visit us each year. Like Verbier and Tignes in Europe, we dominate the big-mountain ski market in North America. We do it all here — self-propelled, lift-accessed, heli-accessed and even snowmobile-accessed. And Hale-Wood’s event could reflect that beautifully. But it goes even further than that. From Dag Abye to Jim McConkey, from Brian Savard to Mike Douglas, Whistler’s sporting DNA is intricately tied to big-mountain escapades. Indeed, some of Whistler’s most popular contemporary heroes — people like Hugo Harrison and PY Leblanc and the aforementioned W-B sponsored rider Ian Macintosh — all got their star credentials from competing in the Canadian Freeskiing championships held on our slopes from 1998 to 2004.

But I’m getting sidetracked…

Undaunted by the slammed door at muni hall, Nicolas Hale-Wood made the trip to Whistler anyway. I showed him around town — it was his first time here and he told me he was highly impressed with the place — while we discussed his new venture in detail. I offered a few suggestions, he countered with some great ideas. To both of us it seemed a slam-dunk: Whistler would make an ideal venue for this new circuit while the new circuit would add even more lustre to Whistler’s reputation as a freeride crossroads of the universe. Now all I have to do is convince the powers-that-be to open the door again just a crack…