The top official in charge of Whistler's sliding track said the facility is in no danger of closing despite the news that it's sister track in Torino, Italy will be dismantled for financial reasons.
Like the at Cesana Pariol, which cost $100 million to build for the 2006 Olympic Games, Whistler's track also has multi-million dollar annual operating costs. Those costs were pegged at $2.2 million in 2011, according to the Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL) first annual report.
And like Torino, Whistler too has struggled to make ends meet in the wake of the Olympic Games.
But, WSL president and CEO Keith Bennett said Vancouver's Olympic organizers (VANOC) and the government — both federal and provincial — had the foresight to protect their $285 million Whistler investments in the 2010 Games.
"We do have funding from the legacy endowment fund, which was a very forward thinking thing that... VANOC, the province and the Canadian government did to help underwrite these facilities," said Bennett.
He is referring to the $110 million endowment fund set up with equal contributions of $55 million from provincial and federal governments. The Games Operating Trust provided $2.7 million to the WSL in 2011 to pay for not only the track but also all Whistler legacies. That funding, however, along with revenues from the venues, wasn't enough to meet WSL's $7.5 million budget.
And so, the province again came to the rescue with stopgap funding — $8.9 million since 2010. Most recently, a final $2.7 million was provided in August on top of $6.2 million over the last two fiscal years.
The Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development provided this comment in September when asked about the most recent funding: "We have provided $2.7 million to the Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies Society in support of the Society's transition from a 2010 venue to its new operations model. It now supports various Nordic participation sports such as cross country skiing; continues to provide an elite training centre for Canada's Olympians and Paralympians; and continues to attract international level competition such as World Cup Championships."
Bennett recognizes that provincial funding has been critical. "We've been very lucky that the province as a partner has helped us underwrite some of our operating costs while we work our way towards a more sustainable model," he said.
It is not clear how the Torino track was funded, if it had a legacy fund or if taxpayers footed the entire bill. It has been operated by Parcolimpico S.R.L., which controls several venues built for the 2006 Games.
Bennett said he heard rumours of financial trouble in May, pointing out that Europe is in a different economic climate as the recession there deepens.
The fate of the Torino track was met with disappointment in sliding circles, rippling through the national skeleton team Friday, Oct. 26 in Whistler on the eve of their second selection race.
Eric Neilson, one of Canada's top skeleton athletes, has only raced down the Olympic track in Torino once but he loved it — it was fast and technical like Whistler's notorious track.
"Everybody's pretty disappointed," said Neilson. "It's always hard to see a track close down for financial reasons because it's a great track... It's like Whistler."
Canadian luger Alex Gough shares the disappointment of the skeleton team.
She remembers the track fondly. It was there she competed in her first Olympics; there she won a bronze medal in the FIL World Luge Championships in 2011.
"It was definitely one of my favourite tracks," she said.
Bennett remains upbeat about Whistler's track, which is the biggest drain on his budget out of the three main legacies he is in charge of at WSL.
In 2011 for example, the Whistler Sliding Centre cost $2.76 in operating expenses and brought in $578,000 in revenues for an operating shortfall of close to $2.2 million.However, Bennett believes success with the public sliding program should continue to narrow that gap.
Bennett also pointed to the impact the track is having on Canadian sport.
"This track has been described as a game-changer for Canadian athletes in that it gives them some great opportunities to train at home in Canada both here and in Calgary where they have two distinctly different flavours of track, which really sets them up to be very successful on the world stage," he said. "So, our goal really is furthering high performance sport and helping Canadian athletes to do better on the world stage. I think 2010 really demonstrated that success in winter sports is something that Canadians really value."
Neilson can't wipe the grin from his face when talking about the thrill of navigating the Whistler track, one of the fastest and most challenging tracks in the world.
"It's fun," he said, though he has crashed there multiple times. "When you get it, it's fun."
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