Italians show Olympics can be more than a two-week party

The first connection between Italy and what is now the Sea to Sky corridor was made on July 4, 1860 when a British naval officer on the Plumper, a ship surveying Howe Sound, spotted Mount Garibaldi at the end of the sound.

July 4 happened to be the birthday of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a man who devoted his life to the unification of Italy and whose overthrow of the Kingdom of Naples earlier in 1860 precipitated the transformation of Italy from a region of city states into a modern country. Among the politically enlightened in Europe and the New World, Garibaldi’s triumph was seen as a significant blow to the old European family dynasties and vindication of the right of the individual to political self determination.

Another Italian connection was made about 15 years ago when a couple of young ski racers from Whistler went to the Trofeo Topolino, the unofficial world juvenile ski championships, in Italy. The Topolino races have been one of the early proving grounds for future world and Olympic champion ski racers. Twelve years ago, after another couple of trips to the Trofeo Topolino, a group of parents in the Whistler Mountain Ski Club launched the Whistler Cup, the North American equivalent of the Trofeo Topolino. The best juvenile ski racers from all over the world will be racing on Whistler Mountain this weekend in this year’s Whistler Cup.

Last weekend and all this week, a group of 100 delegates from Torino and the Piemonte region of Italy, the largest Italian delegation ever to tour Western Canada, were in Whistler and Vancouver. Torino, of course, will host the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Italian delegation came to compare Vancouver’s and Whistler’s Olympic preparations, to participate in the Globe 2004 conference on business and the environment taking place in Vancouver, and to build cultural and business ties.

The latter was the Italians’ primary motivation for visiting, and for hosting the Olympics.

Torino is the home of the carmaker Fiat. One delegate called his city "the Detroit of Italy." But the car business has suffered in recent years and Torino and the Piemonte region are now attempting to diversify their economies. They see the 2006 Games as a catalyst for that change. But the first step was to get the Games, and the international attention that comes with them.

Now the Italians are busy not only preparing for the Olympics but also fostering ties through the Games. Earlier this week in Vancouver it was announced that B.C. and Italian businesses would work together to develop commercial hydrogen-based generating systems. The partnership involves Vancouver companies developing hydrogen fuel cell technology and Torino’s automotive industry.

The Globe 2004 conference, which has been taking place in Vancouver every second year since 1993, is a natural extension of the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, the environment. Vancouver has promised to put on a Green Games, just as Torino has. Representatives from Salt Lake City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, are also in Vancouver for the Globe conference. Representatives from all three Olympic cities will be comparing notes.

The Globe conference has, historically, been more about exchanging ideas than about signing contracts and making business deals. But business starts with ideas.

The Italian delegation also had something for Whistler during their brief one-day visit. The Museo Nazionale Della Montagna, the National Museum of the Mountains, brought an exhibition of photographs and posters representing a century of skiing in the Alps of Piedmont. The posters will be on display in the Whistler Museum until June. The photographs, including one taken in the 1930s of a woman with short, twin-tipped skis, were on display Sunday in the conference centre. The museum didn’t have room to exhibit both the photographs and the posters.

The connection between the Piemonte region and Western Canada will be maintained by the Museo Nazionale Della Montagna during the Winter Olympics in Torino. The museum is planning two major exhibits during the 2006 Games: the first one will focus on the birth of tourism in the Alps; the second will be called Viaggio All’Oro, or Travel to Gold, and will pay homage to the Yukon gold rush that began in 1896 – the same year that skiing came to Piemonte region.

Critics of the Games have complained that billions will be spent on a two-week party. The Italians are showing that the Olympics present long-range opportunities for an entire region.


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