I had a brief discussion this week with a person who isnt all that keen on the 2010 Olympics, primarily because of the money they cost, but who had spent a few days in Torino during last months Winter Olympics. This person still isnt convinced the Olympics are worth the cost, but would go back to Torino and the Piedmont region for a vacation.
Fishermen, I believe, call that setting the hook. And thats what hosting the Olympics can be about. Seventeen days flies by quickly, but the impressions made can payoff over a lifetime.
Most of us who enjoyed a company-paid or government-paid trip to the Torino Olympics probably came back thinking that the whole Olympic thing may be worthwhile. Being there, you could experience some of the intangible, feel-good benefits of hosting the Games, things like creating greater awareness of the host region, seeing that region work to define itself to the world, cultural exchanges, the spirit of people coming together for sport, and the inspirational performances of some athletes.
The tangible benefits, of course, include international exposure, improved sports and convention facilities, improved infrastructure, and the influx of Olympic tourists, media and sponsors who spent lots of money.
The question for many has been: what do we have to pay for these tangible and intangible benefits and are they worth that price? Or could we achieve the same thing for less money? Its a question that will never be answered to everyones satisfaction. And things like the expensive, energy-sucking bobsled/luge track dont help Olympic supporters make their case.
But the debate about whether we should or should not host the Olympics is over. The Games are coming, and they are coming quickly. That doesnt mean we shouldnt continue to question escalating costs, but its also time to look at ourselves. The issue now should not be what we "get" from the Olympics, but rather, what we make of them. And to make the most of them we cant look at the Olympics as just a 17-day event.
Some people from Prince George understood this. They went to Italy to seek economic opportunities, including finding teams that wanted to train at their sports facilities prior to the 2010 Games. The Prince George contingent couldnt find accommodation in Torino so they stayed in Milan, two hours away by train, and commuted daily.
A contingent from Vancouver Island was also in Italy, selling Mount Washington and the Comox Valley as a training area for Nordic athletes.
And Sun Peaks signed an agreement with the Austrian ski federation last year that will see the powerful Austrian ski team train at the Interior ski area each year leading up to 2010.
There was a Whistler contingent in Torino, of course, but it was primarily staff and officials with Tourism Whistler, the RMOW and Whistler Blackcomb. There were only a handful of Whistler businesses represented in Torino.
What we make of the 2010 Olympics will depend, to some degree, on what people see on television. Much was made of the decline in North American television ratings for the 2006 Winter Olympics, with American Idol attracting more viewers than the Games on some evenings. Some of that is to be expected when there is a time difference of six to nine hours and many events are shown on a taped-delay basis. For Whistler and all of B.C., the thing to remember for 2010 is that the Games will be broadcast live across Canada and in our most important foreign tourist market, the United States. A return to viewer numbers like those for the Salt Lake City Games is expected, when 187 million Americans watched an average of 29 hours each.
Then there are the intangibles that could boost interest in the 2010 Games and in sports. For Canadians, they might include people like Chandra Crawford or Erik Guay winning gold medals and elevating their sports cross-country skiing and alpine skiing respectively to an awareness level not seen since the days of the Crazy Canucks. How important to the Whistler economy would the Nordic centre be if cross-country skiing becomes, as Crawford said, the new yoga?
And while the athletes are somewhat isolated during the Olympics, tucked away behind walls and security forces guarding the athletes villages, many of them several Canadians in particular are impressive individuals. Crawford, Drew Neilson and Guay are all intelligent, articulate leaders who would likely rise to the top of whatever profession they chose. They just happen to be skiers and snowboarders.
Whistler, Vancouver, all of British Columbia will impress anyone who has never been here and decides to come for the 2010 Winter Olympics, or sees us on television during the Games. But is that enough? Looking at some of the tangible and intangible benefits the Olympics may bring, are we ready to make the most of these and turn the whole Olympic experience into something that pays off for years to come? Or are we just going to let the Games happen and see what comes from that 17-day period?