The 2010 Winter Olympic Games
were in many ways Whistler's crowning moment as an international ski destination. The village morphed into a melting pot of cultures with vehement spectators supporting their nation's athletes, with patriotic flags being waved at every corner.
It's the kind of thing you see every April in Whistler, albeit on a smaller scale.
For the last 21 years the Whistler Cup has drawn juvenile athletes from skiing nations around the world to race the alpine disciplines of slalom GS and super-G. Racers are aged from 12 to 16 and will this year journey from 27 countries on every continent.
But the Whistler Cup is so much more than just a ski race. With many off-hill activities such as the welcome dinner, the athlete parade through the village and speeches from Whistler Cup alumni — many of whom have gone onto World Cup and Olympic racing careers — participants in this annual event walk away with pride of having raced against the world's best. Every participant also receives the coveted souvenir Whistler Cup jacket, which can be found on ski town youths the world over.
"It's our flagship event now for 22 years," said Nigel Loring, Executive Director of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WMSC).
"It has been the single greatest ski event that the club puts on annually and it's touched thousands and thousands of children over the years, a number of whom have gone on to ultimate success at Olympic and World Cup level."
Lindsay Vonn, Tina Maze, Julia Mancuso, Benjamin Raich; these are just a few skiing superstars that cut their alpine racer teeth in Whistler during their teenage years. Canadian alpine racing veterans Mike Janyk, Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Erin Mielzynski also rose through the juvenile ranks at Whistler Cup.
"It's certainly been a melting pot of talent," said Loring.
"Anybody who is anybody in the world of ski racing has been racing in Whistler at one point in time in their career, and many of them get their first crack at it at the Whistler Cup. The competition is fierce, there's no doubt about that."
One of the biggest advocates for the Whistler Cup is Canada's Olympic Chef de Mission and Crazy Canuck Steve Podborski, who sees the annual event as stepping stone for young Canadian ski racers.
"I think it's a very critical early step," he said.
"If you want to teach your children how to adapt to changing circumstances like going from Vancouver to Sochi, then why not try going from Toronto or Halifax to Whistler? Your children learn all the same lessons they would at the Olympics by attending Whistler Cup."
But racing against the world's best in Whistler is about more than honing young Canadian ski racers. Podborski emphasized the importance of keeping the sport of alpine racing endemic to Canada.
"Typically, if a young Canadian would hold up a mirror they would see a hockey player staring back at them, so it makes it difficult for an eight, 10, 12 or 14 year old to look in that mirror and see a ski racer," he said.
"But when you realize you've been invited to an event of this international significance of the very highest order, it allows you to visualize yourself as a ski racer, and one day think you, too, can race in the World Cup and the Olympics, and win. If you look at the Vancouver (Olympic) Games where we had 14 gold medals and Sochi where we had 10, those are the kinds of things that will inspire generations of youth to say, 'One day, I want to be like that.' So I think it's fundamental to have the Olympic Games and I think it's important to have these junior tournaments that allow those kids to have those dreams come true."
One Whistler Cup alumnus who has realized Olympic and World Cup dreams is recently retired alpine racer Mike Janyk. Competing during the first years of the Cup from 1993 to 1996, Janyk was exposed to international ski racing talent from a young age, but his first Cup was also his first exposure to Canada's national talent.
"I was 12 years old, I didn't have any understanding of the scale of it," said Janyk.
"Dealing with the pressure of World Cup comes way later in an athlete's career. The special thing about (the Whistler Cup) is that it can spark something amazing in the athlete to say 'this is what I'm going for.' The world stage came to my feet, I knew I wanted to (ski race), but it just made me that much more hungry. It showed me what I needed to do and where I needed to go."
Opening the gates
The origin of the Whistler Cup can actually be traced to the Trento region in northern Italy. The Trofeo Topolino has been hosting an annual juvenile ski race for over half a century and has been sanctioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS) race for 43 of those years. In the early '90s, Max Meier, a Swiss immigrant who was heavily involved in the WMSC, had travelled from B.C. to Italy to attend the Trofeo Topolino after his daughter Monica had qualified for the race. Only a handful of Canadian junior ski racers could attend Topolino due to the cost of travel, so after seeing how the event was run with an athlete parade and festival atmosphere, Meier conceived the idea of hosting a similar event right here in Whistler.
"Max felt that there was such an opportunity to get more of our Canadian kids exposed to the top racing in Europe," said Wayne Holm, who has been involved with the event for over 20 years and is the chair of the Whistler Cup.
"He felt that something on our home base would spawn an opportunity for more young Canadian ski racers to see the best, get motivated by the best and want to try and be one of those best. (Meier) took that idea and challenged Joze (Sparovec) on whether or not they could pull it off, and they did."
Sparovec was the program director for the WMSC at the time and both he and Meier knew that such an event could not be executed without significant sponsorship. Fellow WMSC member Jim Yeates joined Meier and Sparovec as a co-founder for the inaugural Whistler Cup in 1993 and began hunting sponsors.
"They were trying to create the off-hill event part of it as well," said Holm.
"That's when Jim's organizational skills came into play, so it ended up being the perfect team to get it going."
To make the Whistler Cup the international race the trio had envisaged, they had to bring over Europe's most coveted youth racers. A sponsorship deal was brokered with Air Canada, which gave the organizers 20 plane tickets to help get the top podium finishers from Topolino over to Whistler.
"(The Air Canada sponsorship) was a very big part of our success to bringing countries over and we kind of miss that to tell you the truth," said Holm.
In it's inaugural year, the 20 racers from Topolino joined the Canadians in Whistler to represent a total of 10 nations. Today the Whistler Cup consistently hosts over 20 nations with the total number of athletes hovering around 400, counting both the U14 and U16 divisions. The talent pool amongst those athletes represents the future of the sport of alpine ski racing.
"Kids come for the ski race, but they also come for the overall event," said Holm.
"It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for those kids, except for those ones who graduate to become World Cuppers and make their way back here. When you get people like Tina Maze saying publicly that one of her greatest successes in her career was her three podiums at Whistler Cup, when you get that kind of support from people who've been here and see how valuable it was to them in their youth, you can't get much better than that."
If you host it, they will come
With the growth of popularity of the Whistler Cup, organization has now become a year-round effort. Everything from hotel bookings, stage setups with sound equipment, food and beverage, as well as marshalling around 300 volunteers, all needs to be coordinated centrally.
"I actually start organizing the next year's event right after we've finished, come May I start booking my reservations for the next year," said Christiane Loring, Whistler Cup's administrator and the only full-time paid staff member.
"Mid February and the whole month of March is packed, it's non-stop. I'm required to book for the international teams at the U16 level and pay for it, covering around 200 athletes and maybe 70 coaches. They only pay for their plane tickets, and some of them we try to help out if we can."
As an officially sanctioned FIS race, the U16 age group is large part of the focus of Whistler Cup's resources and sponsorship dollars. Every athlete in this division is hosted with a hotel room for five nights, meals and their very own branded Whistler Cup softshell jacket — all estimated to cost a total of $350,000. This does not include in-kind donations by the local sponsors such as certain hotels providing affordable or complimentary rooms, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) hosting hill space and grooming and the RMOW erecting banners and assisting with the space needed for the stages during award ceremonies. The bulk of funding comes through the title and secondary sponsors, large corporate entities that have a vested interest in ski racing. The CEOs of these companies usually either have friends or family that participate in the Whistler Cup or know someone who does.
The comprehensive hosting for the U16s used to be available to U14 racers in the past as well, but was scaled back due to the lack of international participation from 12 and 13 year olds.
"The internationals do not like to send their younger kids over, especially the Europeans," said Christiane. "They don't like to send their kids anywhere around the world but Europe. Since the U14 category is not a FIS race, we opened that division as a festival where kids just have to come as part of a ski club. That opened the flood gates. We've now got a lot of teams from Ontario and all the teams from B.C., but the U16 remains an international competition where the athletes get selected to come here."
There is no clear reason why parents in some nations are reluctant to send their U14 racers to an international race on another continent, but some countries embrace it wholeheartedly.
"Some just don't believe in pushing international racing at that level in that age group right now," said Christiane.
"But every country is a bit different. Australia is always happy to send a full team. Norway, Switzerland and Austria will never send U14s. Because of that we decided to change (that age division) into a festival."
The benefits of having a FIS-approved junior ski race for U16s year after year not only has immediate effects on tourism in Whistler with the athletes and their entourages, but has a ripple effect throughout the tight-knit ski racing culture that so many countries consider a part of their national identities. North America may draw its biggest crowds through freestyle events such as the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) and the X Games, but much of the rest of the world still considers alpine ski racing the pinnacle of winter sport.
"It's really a big marketing initiative for the resort, it's probably our biggest, best event for showcasing Whistler and spreading that message around the world because it's very focused," said Peter Young, events manager for WB.
"Up until the actual event, those 25 countries attending this year have been having regional and national competitions to see who gets to go to the Whistler Cup. (It's very hard) to get that kind of targeted marketing. To reach out into Slovenia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria Japan, Korea... You just couldn't do that through normal marketing avenues. Because it's for younger kids it also has an incredible drag effect. Not only is it bringing close to 400 athletes, it's bringing along their parents, brothers and sisters who are all having an amazing Whistler experience. It's maybe not as big of an economic impact on the day as say Ironman, but certainly those parents are here spending money on the mountain, they're buying lift tickets, shopping in the stores and eating at the restaurants."
According to an economic impact assessment report done by the RMOW last year, the three-day international juvenile ski race resulted in $4.4 million in economic activity in B.C., with $2.4 million of that taking place in Whistler.
The ability to target the world's most dedicated skiers so effectively is amplified by the ubiquity of the logoed Whistler Cup jackets. As of the 20th anniversary of the Whistler Cup in 2012, 4,379 competitors had taken home a jacket to display proudly in their home countries and inspire other young racers to one day make it to Whistler themselves.
"You can host national championships and World Cups and stuff like that, but those events move around," said Young.
"This is an annual event and there's not many of those where you can draw people form around the world year after year. The benefit of the Whistler Cup is so clear, besides being the right thing to do for ski racing and the kids around here and throughout world. It's never been a hard sell."
Support from WB has remained steadfast over the last 22 years despite several changes in ownership of the mountain, mainly due to its effective marketing and its ongoing portrayal of Whistler as one of the world's ski racing capitals.
Beyond alpine racing
Despite over 20 years as a proven international ski race festival, the Whistler Cup remains the only race of its kind in North America that invites international juveniles to race against one another.
"You'd have to talk to the Americans about why they're not doing it, but I think the short answer is that it's just way too hard," said Podborski.
"To organize a race for hundreds of kids and fly them from around the planet is an enormous undertaking. You really just need one group of dedicated people and that's what the WMSC did, they somehow had the right people and the right approach to get it going and it's never stopped."
The Whistler Cup may be able to secure an impressive list of corporate sponsors year after year, but the event would not exist if it were not for the team of over 300 volunteers that help with everything from slipping the race course to serving food. Directed by 20 "chiefs," the volunteers are mostly racer parents, many of whom are WMSC club alumni themselves, including the dedicated Whistler Weasel Workers. Since the U14 category became open as a festival for all ski clubs to attend, the workload on volunteers has increased, but everyone still manages to get down off the hill by 5 p.m. under the current schedule programming.
"The volunteers actually learn something more about another country or culture and keep giving back to future events," said Nigel.
"It ties the whole community together, not just the racers but the volunteers and the officials as well."
The Whistler Cup is currently hovering at its capacity of approximately 400 racers and has no plans to expand the alpine skiing event schedule due schedule and logistics already being maximized. But there are plans in the works to expand beyond alpine racing to give the event a true "mini Winter Olympics" feel.
"The first natural step is freestyle skiing, because we have a strong freestyle club here and the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association (CSFA) is a good event organizer," said Young.
"I've been talking with them and we're getting fairly serious about a juvenile event as close as 2015. I really see this thing expanding."
While the Cup already occupies Raven and Ptarmigan on Whistler during its three days, there are opportunities to extend over to Blackcomb where freestyle competitions regularly take place under the governance of the CSFA. There have also been mentions of snowboarding and ski cross events being included down the track.
"I think there's opportunity to take the value of what we've created here and expand it to other disciplines," said Holm.
"But that would take some real discussions between ourselves, the mountain and other organizations. Why not take what we've done and have it grow in other areas?"
More than just a race
As young ski racers convene in Whistler for another year of racing and festival activities, the legacy of the Whistler Cup continues to grow every year. As both a sporting and cultural event that gives back to Whistler every April, there's no sign of the annual event slowing down.
"The Whistler Cup is one of the most fun races you can do one of the finest mountains in the world, said Podborski.
"Get to the Whistler Cup, enjoy the experience and make sure you get some skiing in on some of the other runs besides the race course."
With thousands of young skiers having experienced Whistler's premier race and some of those skiers going on to become World Cup and Olympic champions, there will surely be a blossoming batch of racers taking on their international peers this weekend.
"At that age, making friends and growing your perspective of the world is the underlying piece of this whole thing," said Janyk.
"To see how big the world is, and what's possible if you want to go down that path, it's a priceless experience. From a performance standpoint, and as personal development standpoint, there probably won't be a long list of events in Canada, for that age, that can expose you to that."