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Torino offers Olympic lessons for Whistler, Vancouver

Italian venues excellent, athletes villages blah

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2010 Olympic officials will be taking a second look at their transportation plans, at security arrangements, and how to pack venues with spectators following their observations of the 2006 Games in Italy this month.

And they will be working to match or exceed the quality of sporting venues enjoyed by athletes, and the passion and engaging nature of the people of Turin who embraced the event with gusto.

Vancouver Organizing Committee vice president of sports Cathy Priestner-Allinger has just returned from a fact-finding mission to the 2006 Games.

"The part for me that was absolutely outstanding were the venues," she said.

"They were spectacular and the feedback from the athletes on the facilities was very, very positive."

Priestner-Allinger said VANOC is committed to making sure the 2010 venues are excellent even in the face of rising construction costs and a plea from the organization for another $110 million from government to offset venue costs.

"If we do have to make tough decisions, whether it is dealing with the venues themselves, or construction, or the villages, or food and beverage, or transportation, the athletes won’t be compromised in those decisions," she said.

While the athletes raved about the venues, response to the athletes

villages has been flat. Priestner-Allinger said VANOC hopes to make its villages more cozy with comfortable beds, down comforters, unique welcoming touches, and good food.

The Turin Games also faced several challenges that Whistler, the alpine venue, will experience as well.

"They have had snow (storms), they have had to delay events, they have had to postpone and re-schedule events and we are going to have to do all of that too," said Priestner-Allinger, who worked for the Turin organizing committee several years ago.

The key to surmounting the challenges, said Priestner-Allinger, will be getting resources in place to deal with them in 24 hours or less.

"What I learned from Torino is that we need to have the capacity to respond quickly to such things because the Games are only a couple of weeks and you can’t take three or four days to fix a major problem," she said.

That will mean running simulations of every possible problem that could arise so that a plan is in place to deal with it.

Priestner-Allinger, while impressed with security at the 2006 Games, also questions whether Vancouver and Whistler will need such a high profile plan.

"There was really strong visibility of security there and I’m not sure that is something we would want and we will have to figure out how we work with that," she said.

Whistler businessman and Tourism Whistler chair Rick Clare, who was part of a resort fact-finding mission to Turin, had much the same reaction as he couldn’t help but notice security helicopters flying over the opening ceremony.

"The helicopters flying overhead did take away from the ceremonies because you can’t help but look up when you hear them so it did detract from the magic of the moment," he said.

Clare was also disappointed to find significant numbers of empty seats at some events only to be told that the event was sold out and tickets were unavailable.

"We need to make sure that is not our experience," he said adding that he was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the Italian locals.

Priestner-Allinger said VANOC is already looking into how that happened and will be formulating a plan to avoid it in 2010.

"I think the spectators numbers at a venue do affect the athletes," she said.

"I think when the athletes walk into a venue they expect it to be full."

One of the greatest challenges Turin faces is transporting people from the city to the five mountain venues.

A snowstorm last week caused havoc and drew attention to the challenge in a big way. Meanwhile the Sea to Sky Highway was closed for eight hours due to a serious traffic accident in the same week. Both of these events could cause serious headaches in 2010.

Priestner-Allinger said officials are looking at their plans.

"(We are) looking at that and seeing if there are some ways of mitigating it… and that might come in the way of smaller vans and shuttles versus the larger buses, and fewer people driving," she said.

It’s unlikely that the Sea to Sky highway will offer all the same challenges because it is a better road.

"I was sitting on the shuttle bus there and as I looked out I couldn’t believe the Sea to Sky Highway was such a big issue as I travelled up these tiny winding roads," said Whistler Blackcomb communications manager Christina Moore.

"Transportation flow will certainly be a challenge and we will need to work on that. But it certainly won’t be any worse than it was in Italy."

Moore said attending the Games also brought home to her how crucial it will be to get the message out that Whistler Blackcomb will be open for business before during and after the Games. That’s not the case in Italy where resorts shut down altogether.

"That is going to be our job as a resort to ensure that people know that we are open," she said adding that Whistler has a natural advantage because all the alpine events will be centered around the resort village rather than spread out over five villages.

While Whistler Councillor Tim Wake found the passion of the Italians and the way the people embraced the Games to be awe inspiring he said much of the enthusiasm was confined to Turin simply because the alpine events were so spread out.

"The advantage I see we have here is that we are going to have all these mountain venues basically in one centre, one town centre for all the mountain venues and one town centre for all the city venues," said Wake this week.

"Torino didn’t have that. They had all these little villages and the energy just wasn’t there. I didn’t feel the excitement in the villages. I felt it at the venues, but not in the villages.

"When I talked to people in the villages they were excited and generally they said it was good for business and they were glad to see all the activity in their town, but for me it didn’t feel like Torino."

Wake was also impressed by the way Turin celebrated its arts culture and history and made it part of the Olympics.

But he was surprised to find little if any focus on sustainability by TOROC.

"I think it heightened for me the incredible opportunity we have to showcase sustainability because they didn’t really push it," he said.

"They had huge culture to draw on so they obviously didn’t feel that it was necessary to put such a focus on sustainability."

Wake and Clare also found that volunteers, while super friendly and very helpful, were not always equipped with the information visitors needed.

"I was surprised that English didn’t seem to be a pre-requisite to be a volunteer, so I think we have to be careful about languages here," he said adding that he would love to go back for a holiday to the region with his family having experienced it during the Games.

"In general the volunteers needed more information training for their specific direction giving job.

"I think we have to be very careful to make sure our volunteers are informed."