Interest in alpine ski racing may not be what it was during
the era of the Crazy Canucks, when racing was really the only measure of skiing
performance and snowboarding barely existed, but the first World Cup races in
Whistler in 13 years seemed particularly understated.
The four races held Feb. 21-24 on Whistler Mountain were
Olympic test events, a chance for the International Olympic Committee, the
International Ski Federation, Alpine Canada and VANOC to gauge how Whistler
will do in two years time. Would the weather co-operate? Would VANOC and the
Weasel Workers get the job done? Would the courses be suitable?
From the perspective of VANOC, the IOC, the FIS, Alpine
Canada and all the other ski racing nations, these were the most important
questions. As VANOC’s Cathy Priestner Allinger told the Vancouver Sun, “The
focus from our end were the courses, the field of play.”
And Whistler passed with flying colours. The ski races were
as close to flawless as any ski races can be. Moreover, television showed the
world that it isn’t always foggy and wet in Whistler, and in fact Whistler is
quite a spectacular place when the sun shines.
So from the rest of the world’s perspective, the alpine
Olympic test events were a huge success. From a Whistler perspective, the four
days of racing showed there is plenty of room for improvement.
The races themselves were exciting, if you were among the
2,500 or so who made it up to the Timing Flats above Creekside each day. If you
weren’t at the Timing Flats you could be forgiven for thinking the races were
taking place in some far-off country.
Extending the excitement and atmosphere from the finish line
to the village is the challenge facing Whistler as it prepares to host Olympic
test events at the Nordic centre and sliding centre next winter. There was some
effort to do that with the alpine races last week, but it wasn’t successful.
Many people could have spent the weekend in Whistler unaware that there were
World Cup races taking place.
There was a big-screen TV in Village Square where people
could view the races, but you had to get to Village Square to find that out.
The screen was at the back of a stage where bands played free concerts each
afternoon. That meant the screen was also behind stagehands who were folding
tarps during the men’s super G. And the second run of the men’s giant slalom
was accompanied by a band doing a sound check.
Music is part of most festivals and the free afternoon
concerts were an attempt to broaden the Olympic test events into something more
than just ski races. Unfortunately it was a disjointed effort. A free concert
in the afternoon and displays by some of Alpine Canada’s sponsors are not
enough to enliven the village when the actual events are several kilometres
The problem is one that has been building for years now: the
test events, like the Olympic preparations to date, were run by VANOC, with
assistance in this instance from Alpine Canada, so they met those
organizations’ needs. Whistler collectively didn’t step up to make much of the
opportunity. Individually, if Whistlerites wanted to be involved they
Whistler, of course, doesn’t
to make a big deal of Olympic test
events. No doubt the test events at the sliding centre next winter will show
the track to be one of the best in the world, and anyone who has visited the
Nordic centre has come away impressed. Both venues will look good on
television, which will help boost Whistler’s profile internationally.
But like the alpine test events, the sliding and Nordic
competitions take place some distance from the village. If the goal is to build
some interest and enthusiasm in these events among Whistler residents and
visitors — perhaps even some national pride — the energy at the race courses
has to be carried over to the village.
This will be less of an issue during the Olympics because
the medal ceremonies for all competitions at these three venues will take place
in the village each evening. There will likely be video presentations of the
medal-winning performances, the national anthems will be played, there will be
fireworks followed by concerts, and there will be people from all over the
world gathered in the village and prepared to celebrate.
But it’s not hard to build interest in the Olympics. What
Whistler could also be doing through the test events is building its own
reputation as an event host, as a supporter of Canadian athletes, as a centre
of mountain culture, as even just a fun place to return to. These aren’t issues
for VANOC or sports organizations (and their sponsors) to address. These are
issues, and opportunities, for Whistler to embrace.