Jim Watts remembers the first time he felt excited about the possibility of the Olympics coming to Whistler.
It was 1972, and the resort where he and his family spent weekends—Alta Lake, as it was still officially known then—was invited to host the 1976 Winter Olympic Games alongside Vancouver. B.C.’s bid for those Games had originally been rejected and the Games awarded to Denver instead, but the Mile High City turned down the opportunity after a referendum that November.
“In my room in Whistler, we had an Olympics ’76 poster on the wall,” Watts recalls.
It would have marked Whistler’s first time welcoming the Olympics since four Vancouver businessmen began exploring this part of the Coast Mountains a decade earlier in hopes of creating an Olympic mountain venue ahead of the 1968 Games. The bid never panned out, but their efforts resulted in the formation of the Garibaldi Lift Company and eventual opening of Whistler Mountain in 1966.
The federal government at the time said it was willing to throw $10 million into the pot for the 1976 Winter Olympics, according to the Whistler Museum, so long as the province matched the funds. The Premier of the day was newly elected and felt the funds would be better spent elsewhere.
With local support for the Games at an all-time low after the Vancouver/Garibaldi bid’s initial rejection, the then- president of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association, John Fraser, agreed the timing wasn’t right. Like Denver, Vancouver and Whistler ultimately passed on the 1976 Games, with Innsbruck, Austria, the site of the 1964 Olympics, stepping in to host.
Watts eventually saw his Olympic wish realized two decades after he moved to Whistler full-time.
The 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympic Games are often heralded as one of the most successful Olympics of all time. For Whistler, they ushered in valuable legacies, ranging from sports venues like Whistler Olympic Park and increased snowmaking capacity at Whistler Blackcomb to boosted adaptive sport offerings, affordable housing in Cheakamus Crossing, an upgraded Sea to Sky Highway, and the Municipal Regional District Tax—better known to most as the hotel tax— that continues to fund a range of community initiatives. But beyond the tangible benefits the Olympics brought with them, there were also the priceless memories from those two epic weeks of welcoming the world.
“Just walking through the village, it was really unique, and there were people from all over the world that were coming here ... Everyone’s wearing their country’s colours, walking around and having a good time,” Watts remembers.
But 2010 wouldn’t be his last brush with the Olympic rings. One more lasting legacy from those Games is Watts’ son Reid, who took his first trip down the then-newly-constructed Whistler Sliding Centre track at the ripe age of nine. The now-23-year-old luge athlete has since gone on to represent Canada at the last two Winter Olympics. Watts headed to PyeongChang, Korea in 2018 to cheer on his son.
The nine-year-olds who call Whistler home today might not have been around to witness the last Games held in B.C., but there’s a chance that in less than a decade they could be competing at the same venues that inspired Reid to first hop on a luge sled.
Whistler, like Innsbruck, could welcome the Olympics back for a second time, after the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with four B.C. First Nations—Lil’wat7ul (Lil’wat), xwm 0kw y’ m (Musqueam), Sk_wx_wú7mesÚxwumixw (Squamish) and s ́lilw ́ ta l (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations—and the City of Vancouver last October to begin exploring a bid for the 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Work on the potential bid is currently in the community engagement phase.
With pre-existing venues and a golden track record in the host seat, southwest B.C. is looking like an increasingly attractive option to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) that claims it wants to stage more sustainable versions of the Games. But the question remains—how willing is the community to welcome the Olympics back?
Following the MOU, the RMOW joined the Four Host First Nations in signing a collaboration agreement with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Canadian Paralympic Committee in January of this year.
The COC-led feasibility team, under the leadership of the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, released a draft hosting concept in June, before announcing its financial estimates on July 8.
According to that master plan, events would be split amongst Vancouver, Whistler and Sun Peaks and make use of pre-existing venues wherever possible.
The plans paint a picture of what a “climate-positive” Games would look like, according to the feasibility team. The 2030 Olympics and Paralympics would be the first mandated by the IOC to achieve net-zero emissions.
“This Indigenous-led concept has a strong vision rooted in being a good steward of the water, land, mountain and sky, and includes world-class venues,” the feasibility team states on its website. “It can be delivered by people with the necessary skills and experience, focused on leaving lasting legacies to benefit future generations, while helping a new generation develop their own skills.”
In the Sea to Sky, Whistler Olympic Park would host biathlon, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined and para Nordic skiing events, while the Whistler Sliding Centre would welcome back bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge. Alpine skiing would return to Whistler Blackcomb’s Creekside zone, including speed events and para snowboard. Alpine skiing technical events and para alpine skiing would take place on Ptarmigan. Whistler Olympic Plaza would be the site for the Whistler Medal’s Plaza, while the Conference Centre would once again serve as the Mountain Broadcast Centre. The plan also proposes a new partnership with Sun
Peaks Resort near Kamloops, which would host snowboard and freestyle skiing events on the traditional, unceded territories of the Adams Lake, Little Shuswap Lake and Neskonlith Indian Bands. Among those events are several new disciplines added to the Winter Olympics roster since British Columbia last hosted the Games more than 12 years ago.
All other events would take place in the Lower Mainland, including at a new Olympic hub at Vancouver’s Hastings Park (home to the PNE) that would become the site of a temporary big air ramp, among other venues and attractions.
The initial evaluation pegs the total cost of bringing the Games back to B.C. at up to $4 billion, at least $1 billion of which would need to be publicly funded.
The feasibility team says between $299 million and $375 million in government grants would be required to renovate existing Olympic venues from 2010, as Pique reported last month, plus $165 million to $267 million needed to build new Olympic Villages and between $560 million and $583 million to cover public security.
Officials estimate that $5 to $6 would flow into the region for every $1 of taxpayer money spent.
Though the overall cost to host the Games in 2030 would be similar to 2010, according to the feasibility team, the difference this time around would be the need for three villages instead of two—which would turn into housing once athletes head back home—and significantly reduced security costs, thanks to new intelligence practices used to secure major events.
While prospective sites for the Vancouver and Sun Peaks villages have been identified, the draft hosting plan lists Whistler’s Athlete Village site as “to be determined.”
In June, feasibility team member and Vancouver 2010 vice-president of sport Tim Gayda said officials are working closely with the RMOW and are considering a number of potential locations within the resort, one being the Whistler Golf Course driving range. Tourism Whistler is the current leaseholder for that parcel of municipally owned land.
An Athletes’ Village in Whistler would need to accommodate approximately 2,460 athletes and staff during the Olympics, and 860 during the Paralympics.
“It’s [the RMOW’s] priority, in terms of looking at providing non-market housing, [to have it] next to the town, to alleviate transportation issues and things like that,” Gayda said at the time. “We’re hoping to land on, ultimately, where our villages are by the end of the summer.”
According to a RMOW staff report presented in July, the IOC would also require about 25,000 rooms to accommodate other key stakeholders at the Games, including 13,000 rooms for media and 5,000 rooms for Games sponsors, as well as an expected 2,500 beds in Vancouver and 6,120 beds in Whistler for Games-time workforce like staff and volunteers. “Hotel inventory will be contracted, with the support of Hotel Associations, to meet IOC requirements for Games Family and stakeholders,” the report read. “This work is underway.” IOC international sponsor Airbnb will support spectator accommodation, according to the report.
The reconciliation Games
“An Indigenous-led 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Games provide a multi-faceted opportunity to act on our communities’ and our governments’ collective commitment to reconciliation, to amplify Indigenous voices and to reimagine how a Games can make us all stronger.”
That was the message outlined in a letter signed by Chiefs of the Four Host First Nations and sent to the RMOW and City of Vancouver last month, asking for the municipalities’ continued support and engagement in the bid exploration process.
An Indigenous-led Games “has the potential to positively transform this country and set a precedent for generations to come,” the Chiefs added.
The Indigenous-led bid exploration process speaks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 91— which asks “the officials and host countries of international sporting events such as the Olympics, Pan Am, and Commonwealth games to ensure that Indigenous peoples’ territorial protocols are respected, and local Indigenous communities are engaged in all aspects of planning and participating in such events”—while respecting both the Province of B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and the federal government’s United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
The nation-to-government work being done on the potential bid is already building relationships and “breathing life” into those calls to action, Squamish Nation’s Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis, a cultural ambassador for the feasibility team, told Whistler council on July 19.
When Whistler councillors unanimously decided at that meeting to stay in the metaphorical canoe and direct RMOW staff to continue working with the COC’s Feasibility Team, councillors named the strengthening of bonds between municipal government and First Nations as one major intrinsic benefit.
Developing stronger working relationships with First Nations partners “was a goal of this council,” noted Councillor John Grills last month. “We’ve made great strides, but the conversations taking place and the almost daily interactions is something I never believed could happen, and this is what this current process is allowing us to do.”
RMOW staff have also pledged to implement a community-wide public education campaign on the topic of reconciliation, should the bid advance.
Lil’wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson agrees the 2030 Olympics could be an “amazing” opportunity to help advance reconciliation, if the process is “kept at the level we think it should be, [with] everyone involved.”
Nelson has noticed excitement within his community since Olympic talks began last year, but says the discussions haven’t been free of skepticism.
Some of the concerns he’s heard from Nation members come from workers worried about the inconvenience a Games would pose in terms of their cross-corridor commutes. “With all the stoppages and everything, they still have to make it to work on time,” says Nelson. “There’s so much traffic and so much other people around for a few weeks, I guess, it’s just that type of congestion” they’re unsure about.
Legacies Lil’wat Nation would be looking to leverage from the Games would be housing for its community members and a lasting regional transit strategy through the corridor, says Nelson, but among the biggest draws for Lil’wat Nation is the prospect of increasing opportunities for its youth to participate in sports.
“Investing into our youth and funding higher profile athletes to excel, in general and in the communities—just having more inclusion for all,” he says.
The Games would also be an opportunity to build on the reconciliatory efforts made the last time the Olympics rolled into town and “help educate Canadians and the world about First Nations and our cultures and teachings,” says Sqwá First Nation Chief Lara Mussell Savage, community engagement lead for the 2030 Feasibility Team.
As a member of the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee (VANOC) working in Indigenous participation, Mussell Savage worked closely with the Four Host First Nation Society in the lead-up to 2010.
“The work that was being achieved then, the word that we were using was unprecedented,” she recalls. “Some incredible achievements were being made at that time in Indigenous participation. I was really proud of the work that was being achieved, so with this go-round, with this project, having the four Nations leading this work is incredibly inspirational to me.”
Word on the street
According to the results of a Research Co. survey released last month, 54 per cent of British Columbians think a bid for the 2030 Winter Games should “definitely” or “probably” be launched, which was up 11 points since late 2021. Opposition, meanwhile, has fallen by 10 points, to 35 per cent.
Meanwhile, a recent poll on Pique’s website found 46 per cent of the 405 respondents polled would support a bid to bring the Games back to B.C. in 2030, while 44 per cent would not. Ten per cent say they’re still undecided.
But of the 48 individuals who responded to the poll from within the Whistler community, 48 per cent say they would support a bid, compared to 31 per cent who say they’re opposed and 21 per cent who remain undecided.
In a presentation to Whistler’s Committee of the Whole on July 19, Mussell Savage provided mayor and council with an update about the feasibility team’s ongoing community engagement efforts. From mid-June to July 19, the team conducted 16 engagement activations with the public, connecting with more than 2,200 individuals. About 1,200 of those connections were made in Whistler.
Conversations with the Whistler community up until that point, Mussell Savage said, had been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“The kinds of things that are coming forward are a lot of intrigue around Indigenous-led. We’re hearing comments like, ‘It’s time, we’re ready for this, that’s amazing, that sounds incredible,’” she explained, adding that the most commonly-heard concerns are questions about housing and transportation plans.
The RMOW reported hearing concerns about local businesses’ ability to secure enough staff to serve an anticipated increase in visitors during the Olympics and beyond.
"Stakeholders also shared a desire to minimize financial risk to RMOW with the early establishment of financial mechanisms such as trusts, funds and other financial instruments that could provide long-term buffers via public/private partnerships, should the bid proceed,” municipal staff noted in a report.
During engagement sessions, many community members have reiterated the importance of ensuring the 2030 Games remain “as accessible as possible,” Mussell Savage tells Pique, from physical access for people with disabilities to employment and training opportunities to affordability. “Everyone noted how hard it was to get tickets to see [events] in 2010.”
With that in mind, having hosting experience to draw from is “a huge advantage,” for a potential bid, adds Mussell Savage. “I think that it’s been really helpful that we have memories from 2010, because there are lessons to be learned that we can improve upon and do better next time around.”
While many Whistlerites who stuck around for the festivities in 2010 could reminisce about their Olympic experience for hours, not everyone’s memories of the Games are so rosy.
Long-time Whistler local Paul Fournier says he remembers landlords dropping long-term tenants in favour of big payouts for renting out their homes to Olympic workers in 2010. While he doesn’t necessarily foresee that happening on a wide scale again thanks to B.C.’s tenancy laws, he wonders how the resort’s ongoing housing crisis and rental prices will be impacted by another Games.
“Infrastructure workers, course workers, officials, security, RCMP, all of that. Where are you going to find the room for them?” he says.
He also questions the effects a 2030 Olympics would have on local businesses, remembering a much quieter-than-usual season the resort experienced throughout winter 2009-2010, aside from a few weeks in February. Fournier likens the Olympics to the controversial Ironman Canada race that was held annually in Whistler from 2010 to 2019. Organizers of the popular triathlon were contracted to host the event in Whistler through 2020, but ended up inking a five-year deal in 2019 with Penticton that meant the race left the resort earlier than expected, amidst significant local opposition.
“They said, ‘OK, well, we’re just going to shut the highway down for a day ... because this is really great, Ironman’s really cool,’” Fournier says. “For tour companies, when they’ve only got so many days in a year, in the summer, to run their thing and they’re supposed to suck it up? Or if you’re a tradesman ... you can’t drive your vehicle and go to work that day or go to your job site, you can’t get to Function [Junction]. It’s the same thing with the Olympics, only that was for [a] way longer period of time that it was very disruptive. There’s a lot of collateral damage.”
Bringing back the Olympics is like “trying to bring back a dead horse,” Fournier believes.
“The highway’s already been worked on, they’ve already built an Olympic Village, where are you going to build another one? [Whistler’s] been over-promoted. We can’t keep up as it is in this town now. There’s traffic, there’s waits, there’s no parking, there’s no accommodation, there’s no staff; service has suffered. Everything is at critical mass.”
What's in it for Whistler?
Much has been made about the enduring legacies of the 2010 Games that Fournier and others have mentioned.
What else would Whistler stand to gain from a second go-round?
In addition to accelerating reconciliation with First Nations, drawing investment into the region and reigniting the feelings of pride and community generated in 2010, a 2030 Olympics could boost the resort’s workforce housing supply and help create more climate-friendly transportation offerings, according to an RMOW report.
In Watts’ view, another Olympics could ensure financial stability for Whistler amid an economically turbulent post-pandemic period. The 2010 Games saved Whistler’s economy, as he sees it, following a 2008 recession that saw visitor numbers drop.
There’s some data that could back up those claims: according to a 2011 University of British Columbia study, the province’s economy grew in 2010 with new businesses, jobs and an increase in visitor spending, all likely related to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Welcoming the world back in 2030 will give Whistler a reason to update its 2010 legacy venues, create more affordable housing “and help our economy if the recession gets worse, as it did in 2008,” Watts says, but “best of all, it gives our local athletes a chance to compete and succeed in their sports.”
For Watts, the prospect of the Games coming back to Whistler is purely exciting. “I think we should all embrace it,” he says. “There’s a lot more good than bad that comes from hosting the Games, and it lasts for generations.”
Watts’ excitement was visibly shared by most of Whistler’s elected officials when they decided last month to continue exploring a potential bid. As Coun. Arthur de Jong put it at the July 19 council meeting: “I think we do our community a disservice if we don’t dig as deep as possible on what the legacy and business opportunities are with this.”
At this point, there are more questions than answers around what a potential 2030 bid and its legacies would look like. Namely, questions concerning how partners would share the financial risks and rewards.
So far B.C.’s NDP government has provided no commitments of support, and an Aug. 15 deadline for COC president Tricia Smith to hand over a detailed business plan to B.C. Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Melanie Mark looms.
The RMOW acknowledged it needs more clarity about how a 2030 Games would be financed and indemnified. Once those matters are cleared up, “a variety of agreements will be required to articulate commitments,” a staff report states.
In the letter to their municipal government partners, chiefs of the Four Host First Nations said their own councils are in the process of confirming their communities’ support for a 2030 Games Bid, “conditional on the successful completion of the next phase, the development and finalization of a 2030 Games Multiparty Agreement.”
Once the province determines how much support it would be willing to offer a bid, the federal government would then come to the table to join discussions. All levels of government and partners would need to be in agreement in order for a bid to progress, including the Four Host First Nations, the City of Vancouver, the RMOW, the COC and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, the province and the feds.
According to the feasibility team’s timeline, those groups would articulate the governance and structure of a Games-time organizing committee, funding shares of each signatory, and legacy benefits in the multiparty agreement that would need to be signed sometime this fall.
The Four Host First Nations are also preparing for nation-to-nation discussions with Secwépemc leaders, who have not been involved in the bid exploration from the outset but are being asked to host events on their Nations’ territory in the Interior.
If all goes according to plan, the partners would engage in targeted discussions with the IOC this December, before submitting a formal bid.
Also exploring bids are 2002 Olympic host Salt Lake City (though U.S. officials are also reportedly considering a bid for the 2034 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games) and Sapporo, Japan, the 1972 host. The IOC is expected to award the 2030 bid in late May 2023.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” says Lil’wat Nation’s Nelson. “You know, it is a few years away yet, so we’re still in that frame of mind as well, that nothing is set in stone. But we’re looking forward to opportunities and participation.”
A community survey will remain open on the 2030 Feasibility Team’s website until September. Head to gamesengagement.ca to offer your feedback.