Opinion » Editorial


Overcoming barriers



As their names were called last Wednesday night, each of the medalists in the women's standing giant slalom jumped onto the podium and raised her arms high into the air. The smile on the beaming face of the bronze medalist, 19-year-old Petra Smarzova from Slovakia, was a magnet for every pair of eyes in Medals Plaza.

It seemed unlikely that anyone could radiate more joy but Andrea Rothfuss, the silver medalist from Germany, may have just edged Smarzova when she leapt onto the podium and raised her arms in triumph.

Then North Vancouver's Lauren Woolstencroft sprang to the top step to receive the second of what eventually became five gold medals, and there were three faces with smiles that said more than a million words could have about pride, determination, perseverance, fulfillment.

After a few seconds, mesmerized by the stories these women's faces told, the eyes began to wander slightly. They noticed that Smarzova's left arm ended at the elbow. No hand came out of the left sleeve of Rothfuss's jacket. Woolstencroft's left hand was obviously artificial. Her pants hid the prostheses she wears below each knee.

Many years ago, shortly after Whistler and Vancouver were awarded the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics, Park City's Bill Malone came to town to try and explain to Whistlerites what they had gotten themselves into.

"You will never be the same after you've seen the Paralympics," Malone said.

And so we are - transformed - wiser, humbler, inspired.

The scene at Medals Plaza was repeated several times each night for more than a week. It was a scene surpassed only by witnessing the Paralympic athletes' performances at Creekside and in the Callaghan valley.

At a reception on the eve of the final day of the Paralympics Mayor Ken Melamed spoke about Whistler's aspiration to be a place known for overcoming barriers. The Paralympic athletes were, of course, top of mind but there were many barriers hurdled successfully in Whistler in the last month as we came to new understandings of what is possible. Most of these barriers took years to get over.

Relations with First Nations have improved as a direct result of these Games. The Four Host Nations come to mind first, but it goes further. Aboriginal tourism is now part of the curriculum at Capilano University. Sculptures by First Nations artists from northern Manitoba were this week installed at the Olympic curling venue in Vancouver.

Commissioning and buying First Nations art is helpful but the Manitoba artists received more than a paycheque. They were brought to B.C. three times in the course of the commission, including during the Olympics and Paralympics. The exposure has led to more sales and more interest in their art. And at the Vancouver Paralympic Centre the sculpture installation furthers understanding of a First Nations legend.

First Nations art was, of course, integral to the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics, but so was the participation and support of the Four Host First Nations. According to Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob, it was the late Jack Poole, chair of the bid committee and then of the VANOC board of directors, who had the foresight to invite First Nations to be part of the Olympic and Paralympic bid from the very beginning.

The Games, and in particular the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre which wouldn't have happened without the Games, have given the Squamish and Lil'wat a presence in Whistler that they didn't have previously. But more than that, the Squamish and Lil'wat have become part of the development and commerce of Whistler. This, in turn, has furthered the relationship between the First Nations and Whistler, at least at the political and administrative levels. How that relationship develops in the future without the pressures and deadlines of the Games will be interesting to follow.

As we begin to leverage the post-Olympic and post-Paralympic afterglow into more tourism visits it's worth remembering the barriers that so many people overcame to get to this point. The effort required to overcome some of these barriers has been truly transformative.