While some European media wondered where the crowds were - upwards of 20,000 people can attend World Cup cross-country and Nordic combined events in Europe - Whistler Olympic Park manager Jon Aalberg said the crowds for last weekend's World Cup events were far bigger than they expected.
Whistler Olympic Park hosted a series of events from Friday to Sunday, deliberately pairing World Cup cross-country and Nordic combined events to put the facilities, volunteers and officials through their paces before the 2010 Games. According to Aalberg, the events were successful on all counts.
"It went extremely well from our point of view," he said. "There were lots more people than we expected, and everything ran smoothly. We had a few little challenges here and there, but much less than we expected. The VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee) team at the venue performed super, really well... and from what I've heard spectators had a great time and really enjoyed the events."
While Aalberg said a snowstorm or other coastal weather would have made it a true test, he says organizers had several weeks of snow leading up to the events while getting ready.
"We had basically the worst weather possible during installation the weeks prior, with snowstorms turning to rain and back to heavy snow... and that tested the installation tremendously," he said. "It was nice to have a break and get nice weather for the (first weekend) of the Nordic Festival, but we wouldn't have minded to have a snow day at one of the events to test our operations during the event."
According to VANOC, roughly 7,500 spectators dropped by over the three days. On Saturday, the busiest day, all of the Olympic Park's parking lots were full.
"We used every single parking space in the venue, and we had 1,400 cars on Saturday, which is five times more than we have ever seen up here," said Aalberg. "We handled that with our internal shuttle system, which worked out really well. The team here also was able to adjust our plans to what was actually happening which is a really good sign for me as the venue director because it tells me this group is ready for 2010."
There were some comments made about the course, namely that the skate leg of the pursuit race was too easy. Ivan Babikov of Canada said he would like to see that section made a little more difficult for the Games, as did some of the top European racers including Italian pursuit winner Pietro Piller Cottrer.
However, Canada's Devon Kershaw and Sara Renner liked the course, Renner because the classic part of the pursuit course suits her style.
According to Aalberg, it shows that different skiers have different preferences.
"There were some comments from different athletes about the course, whish we expected to hear - every athlete has their preferences," he said. "We don't plan any major changes, maybe some small adjustments which is what these test events are for. We may also make some minor changes as to what course to use for which event."
The FIS, which approve the course, also stuck by its assessment. "The course is as we want it," said Vegard Ulvang, chairman of the FIS cross country committee, and a former cross-country world champion. "It has a variety of terrain, and we are pleased to see the width of the course that allows for both traditional classic skiing as well as the newer discipline of skate skiing. Aside from some minor modifications we will not be asking for any changes at Games time."
Others found some sections too difficult, including a steep, 180-degree turn on the downhill section that brings athletes back to the stadium.
Aalberg defended that section, where a French skier crashed in the Team Sprint event that allowed Canadian Alex Harvey to move up from fifth to fourth, and then move up to the bronze medal.
"It's expected that we have a technical course, for the Olympic Games," said Aalberg. "We can't have a beginner's course, so we have technical features and corners which are part of the design because we want to challenge those athletes. We want the best overall skier to win, not the best climber or double-poler but all types of skiing, and that includes the downhills and corners."
From a broadcast perspective, the event was a huge success with blue skies, sunshine, and roughly 20 million viewers tuning in daily from Europe. Many others tapped into video on the Internet, which was broadcast live or could be viewed at any time.