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race cancelled

By Bob Barnett There may be a future for World Cup downhill races in Whistler, but it isn’t in December. FIS Race Director Guenther Hujara made his feelings clear last weekend, following the cancellation of World Cup races at Whistler for the third year in a row. But Whistler probably doesn’t want a December date either. "My own recommendation would be no, we shouldn’t try to hold the race in December," said Peter Webb, president of the W5 Whistler Foundation, the group which was formed to oversee the World Cup races and created the WinterStart Festival. Webb stressed that the W5 board hasn’t met to discuss this year’s cancellation — both the men’s downhill and super G were wiped out by persistent mid-mountain fog — but stressed there are alternatives to the World Cup downhill. "I don’t think anyone wants to give up on downhill," Webb said "We’ve made a huge investment in people and capital — $200,000 in safety systems this year alone. "But there are ways to stay in the game without holding the race every December," Webb said, noting organizers of the King of the Mountain series of downhill races for ex-World Cup stars want to come to Whistler. As well, there is the possibility of hosting the World Cup finals or the World Alpine Ski Championships, FIS events that would be held in February or March. On top of that, the inaugural WinterStart Festival has been a big success, Webb said. The resort has sold a record number of room nights for this time of year. "There are still a lot of happy campers. Our sponsors have got their money’s worth and there are lots of people enjoying great skiing." Even the Hongkong Bank of Canada, which three years ago came through with an interest free loan for $3 million to install the snowmaking system which was necessary for a December date on the World Cup calendar, is satisfied, according to Don McQuaid. "The bank is incredibly happy with their exposure, their corporate presence and their hosting opportunities," said McQuaid, who is in charge of selling sponsorships for the WinterStart Festival. "They’ve noticed a huge improvement from last year. The only area they’re lacking in is international exposure, through TV." McQuaid said the bank’s interests can likely be met if there is an opportunity for TV exposure, but the FIS has made that virtually impossible. "The FIS have sterilized the sport, they’ve made it so it’s not North America-friendly," McQuaid said. "There are other events that can be packaged with the Hongkong Bank to provide them exposure. "We can run that downhill course, have world-class athletes on it, provide exposure for our sponsors and tailor the property to the resort’s needs." The rigid requirements by the FIS for holding World Cup races are at least partly to blame for cancellation of one race last week. Following the one successful training run, held on Thursday, Dec. 3, Hujara and the race organizing committee took the unprecedented step of moving Saturday’s race up to Friday, because weather forecasts showed clear periods on Friday and deteriorating weather Friday afternoon and Saturday. But the window of clear weather disappeared just shortly before the downhill was to start at 11:30 a.m. An earlier start time was possible but according to FIS requirements all World Cup events have to be shown live on European television. The start time was held back until 11:30 because a women’s World Cup event was being held at Mammoth, Calif. the same morning and had priority for the satellite feed to Europe. The Mammoth race was also delayed by bad weather and eventually postponed until the next day. Even with three days to hold two races the weather wouldn’t co-operate. After the downhill was cancelled again on Saturday Hujara announced to the media that he could no longer nominate Whistler for the World Cup calendar. Bill McNeney, chief of race for the World Cup events and a member of the W5 Whistler Foundation, said Hujara told him at FIS meetings last fall that he would withdraw his support for Whistler if the races were not run this year, but he promised not to make his views public until next spring’s FIS meetings. His disclosure last weekend surprised McNeney. "He went out looking for the media, not the other way around. "We’ve done everything we were asked to do. It’s really disappointing to be treated like this." McNeney also feels it’s time to re-evaluate Whistler’s options. "We’ve got the number one resort in North America, one of the top three tracks in the world, a safety system that meets the highest standards in the world, a snowmaking system the equal of any, an organizing committee and volunteer base that is dedicated and one of best anywhere. Maybe it’s time to take that asset bundle and shop it around to see what’s out there," McNeney said. "We have to look at what we want to do with it." As well as Whistler being stung by the race cancellation, the Canadian Alpine Ski Team is affected. Alpine Canada desperately needs a race in Canada to show off the national team skiers, who are otherwise on the road all year. Hujara has said unequivocally that a men’s World Cup downhill will not be held at Lake Louise. The only other Canadian site currently cable of hosting a men’s downhill is Panorama. Following Hujara’s announcement last weekend Alpine Canada President Patrick LaForge issued a statement which said in part, "...we believe Whistler deserves a men's World Cup downhill; and we'll be exploring all options to make sure it stays here despite the prevailing opinions from one or two individuals." The Alpine Canada release also contained a statement from Tito Giovannini, vice president of Halva Management, the company which markets 70 per cent of World Cup ski racing on television. Giovannini said, "This is one of the best World Cup Race Organizing Committees in the world. We would support keeping the event here forever." Webb said the W5 Foundation will have to sit down with Alpine Canada to discuss the future of the race, but the W5’s objectives and Alpine Canada’s objectives aren’t necessarily the same. "We recognized after last year’s cancellation the risk of a third cancellation," Webb said. "We looked at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival model, where there are a number of events that make up the festival, and the festival meets the resort’s needs of extending the season." "The infrastructure of the (WinterStart) festival is in place but if you look at the events, they may change to keep the festival fresh," said Doug Perry, managing director of the festival. Perry said there are two legends of skiing tours and an open snowboarding event that would like to come to Whistler and could meet many of Whistler’s objectives, including exposure for the resort and for sponsors. "WinterStart is alive and well and here to stay," Perry said.