Opinion » Editorial


White elephants and grizzlies in the Olympic zoo



As February 2010 creeps up on us we are gradually coming to understand what it means to co-host the Winter Olympics. And one of the most important points to keep in mind is that the Games are a complex amalgamation of business, sport and culture, with a zoo full of interests.

Whistler’s own interests have been roughed out in the 85-page Strategic Framework for the Olympics, presented to council last week. In typical municipal-speak, the Strategic Framework lists 11 strategic objectives and a number of key deliverables for the 2010 Games.

The Strategic Framework also talks about “our Games partners — VANOC, the IOC, the COC, the IPC the CPC, Host First Nations, the City of Vancouver and the City of Richmond.” And this is where we need to understand that we are just one of the players in this zoo. We may be partnered with this alphabet soup in putting on the Games but that doesn’t mean we all share the same interests in the Games. When they are over we’ll go our separate ways and be left to do our own evaluations of how the Olympics went and what they left behind.

What’s left behind are the legacies of the Games. Whistler’s Strategic Framework document lists Our Lasting Legacies, ranging from the 300-acre community land bank to “personal memories and stories of the 2010 Games…”

Legacy number 8 is the Whistler Nordic venue, which “…post-Games will be a legacy for the enjoyment of local residents, visitors and athletes in a variety of recreational uses to high-performance sport.” The Nordic centre is, currently, a $115 million facility under construction. And like most Olympic venues it is being funded by taxpayers.

The original plans for the Nordic centre called for additional trails, beyond what are needed for the Olympic competitions, in order to make the post-Games facility more economically viable. But when the Nordic centre was going through the environmental assessment process a couple of years ago the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations had concerns about the so-called legacy trails disturbing lands they consider sacred. Some commercial operators in the Callaghan Valley also raised concerns about the legacy trails.

So the legacy trails were put on hold; their exact configuration to be determined at a later date. And in the interest of moving along construction of the Nordic centre only the core Olympic trails and facilities went through the environmental assessment process.

Last month acting Auditor General Arn van Iersel warned of the dangers of this approach to the long-term viability of the Nordic centre.

“The post-Games business plan for the Whistler Nordic Centre recommended add-on options such as additional trail development, a sizable day lodge, and food and beverage concessions so that post-Games revenues could be maximized,” van Iersel wrote. “However, in the latest cost estimates of VANOC, the total length of trails has been reduced from 75 kilometres to 26 kilometres and the area of the proposed Nordic day lodge has been reduced to reduce the capital costs. This will affect the ability of that venue to generate the revenues anticipated in the post-Games business plan.

“The cost to scope in these changes after the Games may be significantly greater than if they were included in the venue construction phase.”

It has since come to light that there are at least four grizzly bears whose territory in the Callaghan Valley includes some of the area where the legacy trails were supposed to go. Grizzlies, we are told, once roamed as far south as Mexico, but because so much of their habitat has been destroyed their range and numbers have declined. The “discovery” of grizzlies in the Callaghan (First Nations say they have known grizzlies inhabited the area for years) has prompted calls to drop the legacy trails.

And perhaps the legacy trails will have to be scrapped. But to call for their elimination before an evaluation has been done to assess whether the trails could be built elsewhere, or winter-only trails could be developed, is premature.

VANOC has been deathly silent on the whole matter. But then, we have to remember that we don’t all share the same interests in the Olympics. As van Iersel wrote: “VANOC has stated that its core deliverable is ‘Games-ready’ facilities and that legacy investments will be made based on available funding. VANOC, by reducing its costs now, is increasing the Province’s costs later.”

Because the provincial government is the ultimate guarantor of the Olympic Games and their facilities, the acting Auditor General is warning British Columbia taxpayers that the Nordic centre could be a $115 million white elephant if the legacy trails aren’t included. But it is Whistler that could be the big loser if the Nordic centre is less than expected.

The problem is there is no one to advocate for the post-Games facility. The Legacies Society that is to own the Nordic centre, sliding centre and athletes’ centre and operate the facilities with the interest from a $110 million endowment has yet to be struck. In the absence of the Legacies Society the discussion on the long-term viability of the Nordic centre is taking place without an advocate.

All efforts should be made to ensure the grizzlies’ survival in the Callaghan. As well, efforts should be made to ensure that the Nordic centre works beyond 2010. But at the moment that doesn’t seem to be a priority interest of anyone.