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Editorial

Watching the Games from the sidelines

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The Olympic Games were never going to drop money into our bank accounts and opportunities into our lap. It was always a case of taking ownership of this event and making something out of it. And while this is finally starting to dawn on some, the opportunities for Whistler and for British Columbia are still being eroded because we haven’t really assessed our own best interests within this matrix.

We learned a couple of months ago that the IOC, following its analysis of the Torino Olympics, wants another 350 beds in the athletes’ village being built in Whistler. Those extra beds are estimated to cost between $10 and $20 million.

The number of beds planned for the Whistler athletes’ village was determined following analysis of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The IOC accepted that figure when it awarded the Games to Vancouver and Whistler in July of 2003. Between the 2002 and 2006 Games the only Winter Olympic events that were added to the program and that will be held in Whistler in 2010 were the men’s and women’s mass-start biathlons — events that are likely to be contested by athletes already competing in other biathlon competitions.

In other words, there were no new events added that will bring more athletes to Whistler. The rationale for why another 350 beds are required at a cost of up to $20 million has not been explained. That those extra beds may have an impact on Whistler’s housing market and its overall community plan doesn’t appear to have been considered.

Last week the International Olympic Press Commission rejected plans to house some media covering events in Whistler on a cruise ship docked in Squamish. The first question that comes to mind is: Who is the International Olympic Press Commission to decide where the media is going to stay? The Olympics are a package tour and the cruise ship accommodation is part of the package. If you want to upgrade, book some place else yourself.

Accommodation in Whistler for the Games is already a headache due to the fact that nearly every hotel is strata-titled. To reserve rooms needed for the Olympics means getting a commitment from the owner of each unit about what they want to do with their condo for a specific period three and a half years from now.

Some owners, no doubt, see this as an opportunity to hold out as long as they can and hope the price they are offered goes up. Others, perhaps frustrated with the tax classification issue or the matter of who controls the front desk in their building, may see this as their opportunity to have their grievances dealt with, and therefore are in no hurry to commit to the Olympic pool.

But getting a handle on Olympic accommodation is an issue for all of Whistler. The first group that has to be taken care of is the “Olympic family”. Family guests, as we know, can be the most trying. The size and quality of their rooms has to be just so.

What should not be an issue is how many rooms the Olympic family needs. The number should be set in stone and, like the size of the athletes’ village, should not be allowed to grow.

At Sestriere, the main mountain hub of the Torino Olympics, rooms for the Olympic family still had not been sorted out nine months before the Games began. Whether that was the IOC’s fault or TOROC’s is immaterial. What it meant was tour operators selling Olympic ticket packages couldn’t book rooms for their clients until the Olympic family’s needs were met. Scandinavian tour operators, who had sold packages to thousands of Nordic ski fans, were tracking down individual condo owners the summer before the Games, begging them to rent their unit.

VANOC keeps emphasizing that preparations for the 2010 Games are on schedule, and from VANOC’s perspective they may be. But until the Olympic family’s accommodation needs are finalized Whistler won’t be able to start committing accommodation to tour operators and ordinary people who want to be here during the Games.

One more Olympic-related opportunity that Whistler and the provincial government need to reach out and take hold of is the Nordic centre, whose future became more complicated with the revelation that the area is habitat for grizzly bears.

The Nordic centre is potentially the best Olympic venue legacy in Whistler. It is to be expanded and run by a Legacy Society after the Games, but the Legacy Society doesn’t exist right now. So no one is really responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the $110 million taxpayer-funded Nordic centre after 2010.

But there are all kinds of competing interests in the Callaghan, including logging, mining, commercial backcountry tour operators, First Nations and, now, grizzlies.

Acting Auditor General Arn v a n Iersel noted that, “The post-Games business plan for the Whistler Nordic Centre recommended add-on options such as additional trail development, a sizable daylodge, and food and beverage concessions so that post-Games revenues could be maximized.” He wrote that the decision to reduce the size and scope of the Nordic centre now “… will affect the ability of that venue to generate the revenues anticipated by the post-Games business plan.”

And now, with the Callaghan area confirmed as grizzly habitat, it’s been suggested the post-Games expansion of the Nordic centre be reconsidered.

The point is not that the needs of the grizzlies — or any other group — should be ignored, but that all these things are being decided for us while we seem to be sitting on the sidelines.