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Mayor sees Olympic challenges first hand

Size of Summer Games almost overwhelming; O’Reilly relieved to be hosting Winter Games

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After a whirlwind six-day trip to Athens, Mayor Hugh O’Reilly has returned somewhat relieved to be hosting a Winter Olympic Games in 2010, rather than a Summer Olympics.

The sheer size and scope of the summer games in Athens was staggering he said.

"What it makes you realize is how nicely sized the Winter Games still are and I think we all walked away going ‘boy, it’s nice that we’re doing a Winter Games,’" he said.

"It reassured me that we can do a great job."

During his visit, he spent time at the athletes village in Athens, which had room for over 10,000 athletes, complete with a dining hall that could seat 5,000.

"It’s just massive," he said.

By comparison, Whistler’s athlete village will be able to house roughly 2,000 athletes.

Likewise, in Athens there were 160,000 volunteers.

"Imagine trying to organize, feed, clothe, co-ordinate, educate, train, move (the volunteers) – it’s just a phenomenal feat," said O’Reilly.

Whistler, on the other hand, will need about 10-12,000 volunteers during the Games.

The point about the magnitude of the Summer Games was driven home during the opening ceremonies as 202 nations paraded athletes around the Olympic Stadium. That took more than two hours said O’Reilly, leaving only an hour for the actual showmanship of the opening ceremonies.

The opening ceremony in Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Winter Games, allowed much more time for the actual celebrations because fewer countries participate in the Winter Games.

The numerous challenges of putting on an event of this magnitude were also apparent, said O’Reilly.

"The first sort of real evidence of the challenges coming with the Games was the unloading of the Olympic Stadium after the opening ceremonies and trying to move all those people out," he said.

The organizing committee in Athens had designed a good system he explained whereby 10 buses would load up right away, followed by another fleet of 10 buses and so on.

But there were no corals and spectators weren’t about to voluntarily organize themselves into ordered line-ups.

And so, everyone stormed the first bus and it couldn’t move.

O’Reilly called it "organized chaos."

"We got home, it just took longer than it probably had to," he added.

Another challenge was the language barrier.

A phone call to reserve a car took the mayor more than 15 minutes.

The girl taking the reservation had a hard time even understanding his name.

"Well, it’s Greek to her," joked O’Reilly.

And yet, if hundreds of people were phoning for car reservations, it could be a frustrating and time consuming process.

"I think the other big, big advantage that we have is the working language of the Olympics is English," he said.

But challenges aside, O’Reilly also had time to take in some of the sites.

He attended the diving finals, the swimming finals and the men’s and women’s team preliminaries for gymnastics. He also had time to flex his own muscles.

One morning at 5:30 a few delegates hopped a taxi to the city of Marathon. There they began to run the course of the original marathon back to Athens. They were planning to do the marathon over a three day period.

But after the first 10 kilometres and two hours in the ever-burning sun, the group stopped for Greek coffee and called it a day.

The sidewalk had run out and had turned into busy city streets. They decided it just wasn’t safe to continue.

"It’s almost unfortunate that they didn’t put a trail," said the mayor.

"I think a lot of tourists would do that (the original marathon route), just walk it even."

Indeed, he tried to think about things from a tourist’s point of view when he was in Athens.

Though he could get a car through his International Olympic Committee accreditation, O’Reilly explored the subway system and took a turn on the buses.

What he discovered was that way-finding in Athens was difficult.

"I never really ever found a map that explained where things were and how you got in and out of venues," he said.

"I think that’s important."

Municipal Administrator Jim Godfrey has now replaced O’Reilly in Athens. Deputy Administrator Bill Barratt and General Manager of Community Initiatives Mike Vance will travel there after Godfrey.

Jan Jansen, the project manager of Whistler venues, will go to Athens for the Paralympic Games.

The mayor said this transfer of knowledge program that municipal staff is participating in will be invaluable in the lead up to the 2010 Games.

He explained that staff will be behind the scenes, and going through the operations in Athens to see how things work.

"The transfer (of knowledge) program is set up for the three Games coming up – Torino, Beijing and ourselves," said O’Reilly.

"We’re really fortunate because we’re getting probably the most significant amount of training at the earliest stages that any Games has ever had.

"It’s a brand new concept. Instead of trying to make the Games reinvent themselves every time, they’re trying to share that information in a more formalized program."

The mayor’s trip to Greece marks the first time he’s been back there in 26 years. He spent some time there when he was first married, windsurfing in the Greek islands and working at a campground.

Seeing the Olympics there was a great experience, particularly getting the chance to see world class athletes compete against each other.

It gave him the taste of things to come.

"I’m more excited now about the fact that we’re going to do it," he said.

"I think we’re going to do a fantastic job."