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Scenes from the Games

From colliding buses, empty seats, the log man, and O Solo Mio, Pique editor Bob Barnett observes lessons learned for Whistler from the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Bardonecchia is a nice town of perhaps 6,000 people, 90 kilometres from Torino in the Piedmontese Alps. It has a train station and a pedestrian-friendly commercial street lined with what appear to be locally-owned pastry shops, sports stores, bars, restaurants, grocery stores and retailers. On the balconies of many of the buildings are flags from various nations participating at the Olympics and Paralympics.

The merchants are friendly, welcoming to foreigners and residents alike as they stroll down Via Medail in the evenings in search of an aperitif and the finger food that, by Piedmont custom, accompanies a drink before dinner.

Bardonecchia also has three ski areas on its outskirts, one of which – Melezet – hosted the Olympic snowboard events.

Melezet is three or four kilometres outside of town, on the way to the local golf course/cross-country ski area. The stands at the base of the halfpipe and snowboard cross courses held about 4,000 spectators, and behind the stands was a small village of tents housing food outlets, souvenir shops, toilets, the ubiquitous mag & bag security check points and all the offices required by press and officials.

The events themselves came off well. But after the medalists took the podium and the national anthem was played the energy and excitement dissipated. Spectators tried to find the correct bus to take them back to wherever they were staying, in Bardonecchia, Oulx, Cesana or two hours away in Torino. There was no gathering place where Norwegians, Germans, Americans and all the other spectators who had come thousands of kilometres could celebrate, unless they went into Torino for the medals presentation. And particularly after a high-energy event like snowboard cross, that’s a shame.

The situation was similar at San Sicario, which hosted the women’s downhill and the biathlon events. The spectator areas were well removed from whatever village centre there is in San Sicario. After the event people crammed into buses and shuttled back down the mountain to another transportation hub, or to endure a long bus ride home.

The events at most mountain venues worked, it’s just that, as Gertrude Stein said, there was no there there. For spectators, the Olympic experience at some of these events was no more than another competition – a very important competition, but not much else. And as only official Olympic sponsors were allowed to sell products within the venue areas, spectators don’t even get to taste the local beer or sausages.

Swedish snowboard cross racer Mattias Blomberg is comforted by coach after crashing out.

Of course it was different in Torino, where the whole city surrounds the ice venues and people gathered nightly in the piazzas for the official medal ceremonies and concerts. There was even a sense of the Olympic spirit when you brought several thousand people of various nationalities together in a baroque piazza under a full moon to listen to music and watch fireworks. And the bars and restaurants surrounding the piazzas did a good business selling Barolo wines, truffles and pasta.

Among the mountain venues, Sestriere also worked. It worked because there is a central gathering point, a piazza lined with shops and bars and restaurants, within walking distance of the finish line for all the alpine technical events. People gathered in the piazza to watch events on the giant TV screen, to have a drink or just to hangout and watch the Herman Maier fan club try to outdo the Giorgio Rocca fan club with a cacophony of bells, horns and funny little hats.

Is there is a lesson for Whistler in this? A suggestion would be getting spectators back to the village quickly and efficiently after an event is key. But the decision to have the medals ceremony for the Whistler events in Whistler is also crucial.

What’s that smell?

On a crisp mountain morning, with the rising sun turning the peaks of the Milky Way gold and the trees laden with new snow, there was an air of anticipation – accentuated by sports fans from across Europe scurrying to venues to cheer on their athletes.

Dressed in their nations’ colours, some already in good voice thanks to various throat lubricants, it is a hopeful scene that was replayed each morning of the Olympics.

But there’s another scent that also hung heavy in the mountain air each morning, the smell of diesel from the battalion of buses that were the supply line for the Torino Games. The diesel exhaust was to Olympic organizers what napalm was to Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, the smell of victory.

Or if not victory, at least not defeat.

Many predicted transportation, particularly to and from the nine mountain venues, would be the Achilles’ heel (to borrow a Sea to Sky Highway description) of the Torino Olympics. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a disaster either.

There were a couple of buses that collided on the road up to Sauze d’Oulx during a snowstorm. And during the first week there were a few busloads of people traveling from Torino to the mountains who missed events because drivers got lost. But for the most part the bus system worked.

A total of 1,100 buses were hired for the Olympics, along with 250 vans. It’s difficult to find any two buses painted in the same colours, so it appears they came from all over Italy, and perhaps all over Europe.

And so did the drivers, which explains some of the confusion the first week.

There were bus drivers who knew the roads and villages in the mountains, and there were bus drivers from Montenegro in Italy to make a few bucks during the 17 days of the Games. There were drivers who follow their own paths, oblivious to the designated routes and stops, and drivers who could bring one of the monster buses around a 180-degree corner on the side of a mountain with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to their ear.

The transportation system for the Torino Olympics was probably more complicated than it will be for the Vancouver Games, because of the number of mountain venues. But the scope and intricacies of any Olympic transportation system don’t really become apparent until you look at it in detail.

To start with, there were three types of buses: for spectators, for volunteers and for the media/Olympic family. In theory there was a sort of pre-Rosa Parks hierarchy, where spectators weren’t allowed on media or worker buses and members of the media weren’t allowed on worker buses, however workers could get on just about any bus they wanted. But when an event finished and there were thousands of people trying to get somewhere the rules fell by the wayside and just about any bus you could squeeze into would do.

And for each of the bus lines there was a corresponding entrance at each event venue. Nine mountain venues, multiplied by three entrances each, multiplied by buses coming from at least two directions, equals confusion or a long walk if your bus dropped you at the wrong entrance, even though you might have been at the right venue.

You needed to get on the right bus.

This detail is critical because the footprint for each venue was far bigger than one would assume. Each venue included a grandstand capable of holding 5,000-8,000 spectators; all manner of tents to serve those spectators, the media, officials and workers; three entrance points with security; and room for dozens of buses to load and unload all those people.

For 2010, VANOC is currently planning on utilizing 900 buses a day to move people to and from Whistler and the Lower Mainland. The bus system will not be augmented by trains, as the Torino system was.

Once people are in Whistler, however, they will still have to get around by bus.

Whistler has three primary venues – the bobsled track at Blackcomb’s Base II, the alpine ski finish at the Timing Flats above Creekside and the Nordic events in the Callaghan valley – but in practice may have as many as six. The Nordic events require three complete venues: one for cross-country skiing, one for biathlon and one for ski jumping. If bad weather messes up the schedule for the alpine ski races men’s and women’s events could be held on the same day, effectively doubling the traffic to the Timing Flats.

And unless those 900 buses are converted to hydrogen fuel cells, the smell of diesel will become familiar in Whistler in 2010.

Size and scale

The buses were just one example of the scale of the Winter Olympics and the level of co-ordination that goes into them. Making sure those buses continued to run in the middle of winter required an army of mechanics and service people.

Construction of the venues was another example of mass co-ordination.

As mentioned, each of the nine mountain venues had grandstand seating for 5,000-8,000 spectators. Scaffolding and staircases for the venues came from companies in Ireland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The Sestriere grandstands were particularly impressive, as the contract to build them had to be re-tendered just a month before the Games began. They were constructed at 2,000 metres elevation in the middle of January.

Games numbers

Officials expected 1 million spectators at the events over the 17 days of the Winter Olympics, although that doesn’t mean 1 million individual people.

There were also 10,000 members of the media; 6,000 guests of sponsors; 2,600 athletes; 2,500 coaches and team officials; 2,300 representatives of the IOC, national Olympic committees and federations; and 650 judges and referees.

Much was made of the empty seats at Olympic events and the fact that Olympic family members (corporate sponsors) didn’t make use of some of their tickets. VANOC has vowed that that won’t happen in 2010.

While there were some empty seats at mountain events at the 2006 Games, it wasn’t like skiers and snowboarders were competing in front of half-empty stands. At each event there were fan clubs for specific competitors, who made sure they were seen and heard, as well as spectators just interested in seeing a good competition.

To see a Winter Olympic event in the mountains also takes a bit more commitment by spectators than does, say, watching speed skating. The grand stands at the Torino mountain venues were all exposed to the elements, meaning spectators had to be prepared for everything from wet snowstorms to sunshine to the chill of a crisp, clear evening at 2,000 metres.

And most spectators were prepared. When the men’s super G was postponed nearly four hours spectators passed the time singing O Solo Mio, among other tunes.

But most spectators also knew that alpine ski races are essentially over after the top 30 skiers have gone. Some people were polite and stayed around to watch the skiers from Argentina, Libya and Senegal race, but others were already looking for a party to celebrate or an early bus to take them home.

Safe and secure

Despite the fact that Danish and American flags hung on the balconies outside Pique Newsmagazine’s European bureau in Bardonecchia, there was no fear or hint that the bad guys in the global war on terrorism were anywhere nearby.

Indeed, the only connection between the Olympics and terrorism seen in the mountain towns outside Torino was Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which was playing in several theatres.

Of course the large police presence, the check points for private vehicles on mountain roads and the ubiquitous mag & bag stations at every venue and athletes village may have been enough to dampen the enthusiasm of any would-be terrorist.

Or it may be that the outdoor sports of the Winter Olympics are just not of much interest to people other than those who know the sports and the athletes. How much of a political statement would be made by attacking a bunch of cross-country skiers in the woods or a pair of men stacked on top of each other and lying on a sled rocketing down a luge track? And just what was that AWACS plane that was apparently flying overhead looking for, a missile aimed at Bode Miller?

An uneducated guess would be that German authorities will have far more stringent and complicated security matters to deal with when that country hosts the World Cup of soccer this summer.

Perhaps that was the beauty of having all the outdoor sports spread out over nine venues and five mountain towns: there was no one focal point for terrorists. However, there was also no focal point for spectators or people just interested in being part of the Olympics.

As for the police presence, there were a few carabiniari at the train stations and walking the streets but they were armed with no more than a pistol; nothing to make you think the global war on terrorism has escalated.

It’s at the venues themselves that security was tightest, although "tight" seems to be one of those words whose meaning is subject to various regional interpretations in Italy. At one athletes village a Whistlerite managed to wangle his way in despite having no accreditation. At another, a Whistlerite was told he couldn’t even photograph the buildings.

The log man

The return of the log person

One of the best characters in David Lynch’s weirdo TV series Twin Peaks was the Log Lady. Her male counterpart is apparently Swiss.

The men’s alpine ski races were some of the signature events of the Winter Olympics, particularly for the nearby countries that share the Alps: Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. For the men’s super G many fans came dressed in the colours and costumes of their nation or alpine region. The Germans were decked out in red, yellow and black and furry animal headgear. The Italians sang while they waited for the race to start. The Norwegians sported Viking helmets with horns.

And one Swiss fellow brought his log.

With a thick beard, an alpine felt hat and a Swiss flag he already looked like a mountain man, but on his back he had a small canvas pack – with a log strapped to the top of it. The hinges on the log suggested the inner contents may have been schnapps rather than wood.

Blizzard of opportunity

One of the lessons Whistler businesses may take from the XX Winter Games is that a problem for organizers may be an opportunity for them.

A case in point was the women’s super G. More than 5,000 spectators and a few hundred journalists were packed into the finish area at San Sicario Fraiteve watching the snow come down and waiting for what seemed an inevitability: the canceling of the race and re-scheduling it to the next day.

When the word finally came down at noon, all those spectators and reporters were free to escape the secured confines of the finish area, and the Budweiser, Coca Cola and other official Olympic nourishment. And the restaurants and bars in San Sicario did well.

Unfortunately some of the retailers missed an opportunity. Many retailers close in the early afternoon while they go and have lunch themselves.

Business as usual

One of the biggest questions Whistler seems to have about the Olympics is how will the Games affect business, and how should businesses prepare for the Games.

It’s one of those trick questions, for which there is no right answer. The best we can do is observe.

In Torino, all the clothing and shoe stores have "sale" signs in the windows during February. This happens every February, apparently, as room has to be made for the spring fashions from nearby Milan.

In the mountains, change keeps pace with the seasons, rather than trying to run ahead of them. Once the alpine speed events were over parts of Sestriere and San Sicario re-opened to the public for skiing. There obviously wasn’t been a rush of skiers, however, as powder was still visible on some lower slopes three days after the last snowfall.

Bardonecchia is not Whistler. It’s an alpine town with a few centuries of history that now embraces skiing as a part of its local economy. The population swells on weekends when people from Torino come to stay in their condos and go skiing at one of the three ski areas. During the Olympics, Bardonecchia hosted the snowboard events.

At the foot of Bardonecchia’s main shopping street, Via Medail, is Le Vie Del Gusto, a shop specializing in cheeses, cured meats, wine and grappa, all products the Piedmont area is well known for. "Selezione accurate di prodotti engastrononomici de alta qualita," the sign says. "Free tasting" is the sub-text that draws visitors in.

Riccardo and Felice are the proprietors; Riccardo is the one who commands the shop, physically and authoritatively. In a friendly, offer-you-can’t-refuse kind of way he suggests you taste samples of the various cheeses and then decide what you want to buy.

Giant wheels of cheese are splayed open behind the glass, some with ugly red and grey splotches in the centre – markings of authenticity, showing that these came from the farms of the surrounding mountains, rather than a factory in a city.

Then it’s on to the cured meats, and samples are again offered.

When the evening’s food has been chosen and Riccardo is wrapping the selections in wax paper, customers wander over to look at the wall of Piedmont wines. Riccardo, who looks a little like Cal Schacter, comes up from behind and puts his massive arms around the customers’ shoulders.

"Mi amici," he says solemnly, preparing all of us for an important decision, "lo vino."

Barolo, si, grande vino. Grande conto, too.

Eventually a Barbera d’Alba is selected.

After making sure all the purchases are placed carefully in a neat paper bag Riccardo stops the customers just before they leave, opens the bag and drops in some cookies.

How have the Olympics affected Riccardo’s business? It’s a question that requires a better understanding of the Italian language, and probably another month of evaluation. People came to Bardonecchia for six days of snowboard competitions, but the event venue was a bus ride outside of town. The smallest of the three athletes villages is in Bardonecchia, but national teams were not conspicuous on Via Medail.

Bardonecchia is a town where Le Vie Del Gusto has probably thrived since long before the Games, and will continue to thrive long after the Games.

But Riccardo, like other business owners in Bardonecchia, also seems to have embraced whatever opportunities the 17 days of the Olympics may have brought. There is a sign on his door welcoming people in six languages, and another thanking people for participating in the XX Olympic Winter Games. They are mass-produced signs, seen on other businesses in Bardonecchia, but they have an impact on visitors.

Riccardo probably hasn’t changed how he does business. He is obviously proud of the food and wine produced in Piedmont and loves to help people from around the world enjoy them.

Has he inflated his prices for the Olympics? It’s impossible to know, but the suspicion is he is going about his business as usual, and residents of Bardonecchia wouldn’t let him do otherwise.