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The weather factor

There may be complaints about the weather, so VANOC is doing something about it



As the months count down until the 2010 Games arrive it's time to figure out the must-haves to put on the event.

And what can affect that planning more than anything else is something completely beyond the control of Olympic officials: the weather.

Planners with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games know they must prepare for the worst case scenarios, which may include weather cutting Whistler off from neighbouring communities.

"This past season we have gone through looking at what is core, what do we need definitely in Whistler to be able to get the race off," said Tim Gayda, VANOC's vice president of Sport.

"So we start to look at things like if (the Sea to Sky Highway) did go down for some reason then we have the athletes there, the broadcasters and media are all there, and so what we need to do is to make sure that we can open the venue and run it.

"These are things that we have been internally planning for in terms of who needs to be there and who doesn't necessarily need to be there, so you start to look at the levels of service," said Gayda.

"For us we want to make sure that we can run the event, if the weather allows us. So in situations like that the question is: Do we need to open the merchandise tent? ...It is about what is core versus what is a nice to have."

Aiding those decisions are the most accurate weather forecasts possible.

Olympic planners and Environment Canada have been working together on that front since 2003. It's a $12-million venture that by Games time is likely to include weather forecasts every 15 minutes. Each venue will have its own forecast team. VANOC's $2.6-million share will come out of its operating budget.

The forecasts cover the whole Olympic theatre, which can go from rain in Vancouver, to sleet in Squamish, to a snowstorm in Whistler. There is no one weather forecast fits-all in this part of B.C.

A team of 30 forecasters will be sending data to VANOC, security officials, and highways people to make sure organizers have what they need. That has meant installing a Doppler Radar system near the entrance to Whistler Olympic Park, and increasing the number of upper air weather balloons that will be released from the weather station in Whistler - up to four a day. These helium-filled balloons have tiny radio transmitters in them, which send data back for collection before they burst and fall to earth.

"It is the vertical temperature structure that tells us what phase the precipitation might be," said Al Wallace, regional director of Meteorological Services of Canada.

"Is there a warm layer aloft that might melt the snow crystals and cause it to fall as freezing rain? Are the winds and the temperature profile changing in such a way that it is going to warm up or cool down?"

On race day that type of information can make the difference between running the event and postponing it, or even starting it again if the field of play changes mid-competition.

"For us, in short, it is critical," said Gayda.

"We saw that last year at the World Cup with the super G. We had to move it up by an hour... and the forecasters called the snow and it came down almost to the minute, so that kind of information during the Gamers is critical to what we are trying to do."

At last year's World Cup freestyle events on Cypress Mountain fog and rain wreaked havoc. In the end the men's moguls were cancelled and other events were postponed,

VANOC does complete weather surveys at Games time each year. Those, along with test events at the venues, have led the organization to make changes to planning around the volunteer uniforms, tents for staff and volunteers, and even the amount of food on hand. And all of those, of course, can lead to increased operational costs. Those budgets are not available.

VANOC has put all the events at risk of delay or postponement at the beginning of the Olympic schedule in case they had to be moved. But that could mean that people will end up with a tickets to a postponed event they are unable to attend. Gayda said VANOC is working on a way to get those unused tickets back into circulation. Tickets are not refundable.

"That is something ticketing is working on to make sure we are being fair," he said.

If an event is delayed then spectators must stay inside the fence at the venue, which can lead to increased demand for food as well as higher bills from contractors who have to work extra hours.

The 2008 Weather Impact Study states: "Spectators must come prepared to endure long weather related delays that have occurred in past Games periods. VANOC will need to find solutions to ensure spectator comfort."

Those are sentiments echoed by Wallace.

"People should be prepared that if they come to visit Vancouver and Whistler in February it could snow or it could rain," he said.

"The temperature could be below freezing or a little bit milder so they should pack an extra bag to be prepared. It is part of the charm of where the Games are going to be held."

Wallace would offer no prediction about the weather for the Games saying host cities could get what's happened before or something new.

"...To even hazard a guess as to what is going to happen a year form now would be foolhardy," he said.

Just look at the last Christmas season with Whistler getting much less snow than normal and Vancouver getting record amounts.

Gayda was rather gleeful at the wacky weather as it just brought home to everyone that Mother Nature has her own agenda.

"We always say the storm is coming," he said.

"You need to be ready for this type of weather. This is something that we always plan for in sport and it is always a nice wakeup call because we need to plan for this across the board."

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