Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Brave new world for Olympics

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I'll get this out of the way straight out of the hopper—I wasn't here or even all that close—for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Whistler and Vancouver.

Admittedly, I wasn't around for the highs like Jon Montgomery celebrating his skeleton gold medal by chugging beer on the Village Stroll, nor was I around for some of the challenges like additional traffic congestion during that period.

That said, I've enjoyed some of the legacies from those Games, ranging from watching World Cups at the Whistler Sliding Centre, to exploring Whistler Olympic Park (WOP), and, especially, the upgraded Highway 99. And, of course, nearly every current resident is feeling the pinch of the resort's popularity, which was no doubt exacerbated by hosting the Games.

With Calgary in the mix to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games, Whistler has emerged as a possibility to welcome the ski jumping and Nordic combined events at the WOP as the 1988 Winter Olympic hosts are decommissioning their ski jump rather than repair it.

In prior years, that type of declaration would seem to be the kiss of death for a bid, as the IOC tended to favour proposals that kept the action confined to a relatively compact geographical area.

However, as fewer countries mounted efforts to bring in the Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has changed its tune to make the effort more realistic. As white elephants popped up all over the world—massive stadiums built for the Olympics looked decrepit and desolate less than a decade after debuting—we're at a point where the movement is looking to reuse venues as opposed to dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into venues that will receive two weeks of use before becoming obsolete.

That's where Whistler's opportunity for 2026 comes in. With little appetite to pour significant money into sports that are, to put it politely, not the Olympics' marquee draws or have bustling representation in our country, it makes sense to reuse the WOP. In the end, even after additional security and travel costs are factored in, the hope is this move will end up costing a fraction of the price of building a brand-new facility in Calgary while also pumping some additional use out of the Whistler Olympic Park jumps instead of creating a new competitor for it.

With the Calgary WinSport jump being shuttered, Whistler's jump will be the last active venue in Canada, so the 2026 bid needs Whistler more than we need it. I'm not suggesting that Whistler goes out of its way to be uncooperative, as that attitude could certainly have unfortunate ripple effects, but it would be best to ensure the resort comes out ahead as a result of its participation. The IOC's working group report released earlier this month notes that Whistler's Olympic Village would consist of 350 beds in existing facilities, but of course, if there's a way to parlay hosting into some new, badly needed housing, that would be ideal.

As well, the funding formula seems to suggest that if the bid is successful, Whistlerites and indeed all British Columbians will be no more on the hook for the costs than any other Canadian as the City of Calgary, Province of Alberta and Government of Canada are taking on the public burden, initially estimated at $3 billion. The bid also claims 90 per cent of the costs will be privately funded.

While there is a $1.1 billion contingency fund built in, in a Sept. 16 article in the Calgary Herald, Concordia University sports economist Moshe Lander notes that the last 10 Olympic cycles (excluding Sochi in 2014 and Beijing in 2008) averaged overruns of 50 per cent.

Lander also disputes organizers' claims that in Alberta, the initial investment will be returned fivefold. Here in Whistler, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect big bucks with a couple of smaller events in the Callaghan Valley, but if the contributions are minimal or, outside of the federal portion, non-existent, any benefits are gravy.

And it's difficult to expect that the drawbacks seen in 2010 will return again—the event traffic would be significantly less than eight years ago, and even if ski-jumping supporters turned out in droves, would the effects be wilder than one of the busier weekends of the year? Even if the occupancy numbers rivalled those on long weekends, I'd put my money on attendees being from the quieter, more settled demographics.

Given the IOC's track record, it's certainly right for our decision makers to take a close look at the feasibility of the numbers being presented and if, as it appears now, Whistler can bring the world's best ski jumpers with little to no risk, it makes sense to do it. It's just unfortunate timing that Calgarians will vote in a non-binding plebiscite next month without seeing if the IOC's changes are truly part of a brave new world or if it's more talk than action.

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