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Whistler awaits Vancouver plebiscite on Games

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People in Whistler, whether they are for or against the Olympics, will be closely watching Vancouver’s plebiscite on the 2010 Games tomorrow, Feb. 22.

After all, the 293,000 voters in Vancouver hold Whistler’s Olympic future in their hands as well.

"In the forums in Vancouver there seems to be no perception that (no-voters) could be denying Whistler the Olympics and denying the Games to the rest of the province and the rest of the country," said long time Whistler resident Garry Watson.

Whistler has been working to win an Olympics since the early 1960s. Bids were put forward for the 1968 and 1976 Games, and lesser efforts were made to attract the 1972 and 1980 Olympics. Many lay the development of the village in the late ’70s and onwards at the foot of the original bid for the Games, which acted as a catalyst for the development of Whistler Mountain.

"The village of Whistler may not have happened if it had not been for the Olympic bid and there has been an on-going benefit flowing from that and not just for Whistler," said Watson.

Last year a grass roots movement got under way in the community to host a referendum here on the Games.

But Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said at the time a referendum was the wrong way to go, as there simply were not enough details available about the bid for people to make an informed choice.

Today, although optimistic about a positive plebiscite out come, he is still concerned.

"It’s risky," he said.

"As a community we chose not to go that route for that reason."

He believes Vancouver residents understand they are not just voting for themselves.

"People in Vancouver are getting messages from friends and calls saying, ‘hey, you are representing me in Nova Scotia. Think about that,’" said O’Reilly.

"This isn’t just about Vancouver. This is about our country and I think there has been that kind of understanding over the last few days and hopefully it will come to a crescendo on the 22 nd and people will get out and take all the information in totality and cast their vote representing that.

"The reality is that Vancouver is having to shoulder more responsibility than for just Vancouver. They are really shouldering it for Whistler, the province and for Canada because the support across the country is huge."

O’Reilly sees the plebiscite as a key day for the bid to win the Games.

"You can’t deny it," he said.

"You can’t hide from it. But I’m hearing good things from lots of people."

A "yes" vote would signal not just support, said O’Reilly but a new level of understanding from the public following the intense debate and media coverage of the last few weeks.

A "no" vote on the other hand, said O’Reilly, could be a signal to go back and see what people were reacting to and a focus on how to improve the bid.

But Olympic expert Kevin Wamsley said the plebiscite is too close to the July selection date for the 2010 Games for any issues to be addressed.

"I don’t think there is anything that can be done realistically to suggest that things have been fixed and that people would vote otherwise," said Wamsley, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

"And without having another plebiscite you would never know so I don’t think that argument holds any water."

Wamsley wonders whether Vancouver’s plebiscite will set a new precedent.

Already proponents of the New York 2012 Games are eyeing Vancouver’s vote with concern.

"The IOC is a reactive organization," said Wamsley. "So if there is intense public pressure, particularly when huge sums of public money are involved, to address the wishes of the people who are actually paying for the Games I could see the IOC in the future requesting that a plebiscite take place.

"It is part of the bidding. It is right there on the list that the citizens of the regions must approve.

"If a couple informal or formal plebiscites occur, and the answer is no, I think that puts pressure on the IOC to request a formal recognition of a yes vote or a no vote."

Maureen Douglas, director of community relations for the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation in Whistler, said a number of people have voiced their frustration over the Vancouver plebiscite.

"I have had some e-mails and people are certainly frustrated and concerned," said Douglas.

"I have had a lot of regular citizens and volunteers say what can I do.

"Some people have said to me that they feel somewhat disenfranchised and what they want is to find a way to be actively empowered."

Public support in Whistler has been steadily increasing said Douglas.

"Whistler has always had a majority in support of the Games with the average sitting at about 65 per cent," she said.

Results of the plebiscite are not legally binding, but a strong No could result in the IOC voting to award the Games to either Salzburg, Austria or Pyeongchang, South Korea.

That is one strong reason why the bid corp. has put significant resources into the Yes campaign.

Spokesman Sam Corea said $350,000 has been contributed to the Yes campaign by the bid corp. The money is part of its $34 million budget.

The bid corp. has also allocated in-kind media time to support of the Yes vote. Ads to encourage people to vote yes have appeared on TV, radio and in newspapers.

David Podmore, leader of the Yes Committee has raised another $350,000.

The No side’s budget so far is $1,200 and is run by volunteers.

Local businessman Van Powel, who runs a Web site aimed at educating Whistler and others on the Games (www.whistlerolympicinfo.com), welcomes the plebiscite.

"The only unfortunate thing about this is that all British Columbians didn’t get to vote in a plebiscite, since it is all British Columbians who will pay for this thing," said Powel.

But he believes Vancouverites understand the weight of their task.

"(They) realize that they are voting for the rest of B.C. as well, whatever way they vote," said Powel adding that he is excited at the level of debate the plebiscite has engendered.

"I think as people have found out more information they have taken a second sober look," said Powel.

"To some degree I feel that is a little bit of a feeling of entitlement involved.

"I sense that here and I sense that in Vancouver. Well, we deserve the highway upgrade and we deserve the land bank and we deserve the luge run.

"Well, people in other places in B.C. deserve their hospital and their women’s shelter and they deserve their schools.

"We don’t work any harder than they do so at some point it does become a question of morals."