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Weasels wander through Wasatch range



Whistler race volunteers at the Winter Olympics

Ultra-sensitive metal detectors. Snipers in the alpine. Soldiers in the trees. Helicopters and F16 fighter jets flying overhead.

Things aren’t usually this intense for Whistler’s Weasel Workers as they work alpine race courses, but then there has never been an event where security mattered as much as the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Twenty-three volunteers from Canada joined the 1,400 people who had already signed on to build and maintain the alpine courses for the Olympics. Nine of them live at least part of the time in Whistler, including Karl Ricker, Brian Humphries, Dave Shefley, Bob Watters, Marie Wood, Owen Carney, Ken Taylor, Bob Miller, and Christine Yanisiw.

The Weasel Workers, seasoned veterans of Whistler World Cup downhills and other high performance races, spent 13 days getting the downhill and super G venues at Snowbasin, Utah, ready for the Games.

"The security was horrible and the bureaucracy was pretty tough," says Ricker. "Every day you had snipers in little hideouts on the ski hill, helicopters over your head, F16s flying by, national guardsmen and sheriffs everywhere. There were two checkpoints on the main road (from Ogden to Snowbasin) and a third at the last turnoff."

Even the senior FIS officials were searched and questioned every day of the event, and nobody went anywhere without a big yellow security pass, complete with photograph. There were also metal detectors at the staging area, and people were searched on a regular basis. Every cell phone, laptop, camera and video recorder was activated to prove that they were what they appeared to be.

The one-hour drive from Salt Lake to Snowbasin was choked with buses and private vehicles, each of which had to be searched if the vehicle wasn’t already cleared, adding an hour or two to the trip.

Security also kept 30,000 spectators, officials and media in the bleacher area built at the bottom of the courses, which meant that all the people you saw cheering on the side of the course during the downhill were the course workers and volunteers.

"We provided the atmosphere," says Ricker.

The Weasel’s first day was spent going through an enormous binder with a volunteer co-ordinator. The second day was spent in side-slipping school, although most of the Weasels were there to do some real work.

"We were just there for the snowstorm, which never really came," says Ricker. "It snowed a little before the super G, and we had the course cleared in probably less than an hour."

Bombardier also supplied Snowbasin with a fleet of 16 winchcats, which sat mostly unused at the bottom of the course for the duration of the speed events.

The workers filled in ruts, fixed fences, hardened soft spots, and even condescended to do some side slipping to prepare for events. For their troubles they were given Olympic volunteer jackets, pants, hats and gloves. The jackets are currently selling on e-Bay for about $750 U.S.

They also had to find their own accommodation, with most staying at Weber State University in Ogden.

Of the downhill course, Ricker says it was one of the most difficult he’s ever seen.

"There was no relief anywhere for the skiers, you had to work the whole way down and have some sharp edges."

It was too steep in places for snowshoes and ski boots, and workers on several sections of the course required crampons.

Half of the mountain was closed for the downhill, and the other half was open to the public – which stayed away in droves.

"It was empty. People couldn’t be bothered to go through the security. Even the resorts that weren’t hosting events were complaining that the Olympics had driven away their clientele. Numbers were way down for this time of year," said Ricker.

The Weasels watched the Games even closer than they normally would, knowing that Whistler could be hosting many of the events in 2010 if the Vancouver bid is successful.

With 30,000 spectators in the stands for the downhill, Ricker wonders where spectators will go with developments at Creekside using most of the area at the base of the Dave Murray Downhill. He believes that will likely push the finish area up to the timing flats, which creates other difficulties in locating the women’s downhill course and transporting people up to the finish.

A smaller stadium could be built, but Ricker is concerned that after Salt Lake, the FIS and IOC will make the big stadium a requirement.

"My advice would be to locate as many venues around Vancouver as they can and keep people off the highway," says Ricker. "It was a mess in Salt Lake, and we’re talking about a much better, new, four-lane highway. You can hold the speed events in Whistler but that’s probably all I’d do."

The Weasels’ lifestyle also conflicted with some of Utah’s rules. There was no beer tent at the bottom of the mountain. One Weasel received a warning from the police after bringing beer to a volunteer tent.

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