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Beyond VANOC and 2010

At several recent Olympic Games, and increasingly as numbers are crunched and time ticks away for the 2014 Games in London, the main concern has been whether the Olympic venues would be completed in time for the Games, and at what cost.

At several recent Olympic Games, and increasingly as numbers are crunched and time ticks away for the 2014 Games in London, the main concern has been whether the Olympic venues would be completed in time for the Games, and at what cost.

This tendency of organizing committees to twiddle their thumbs and tell everyone else not to worry may have started with the 1976 Games in Montreal, where the Olympic stadium wasn’t completed until 1986. Since then there has been anxiety about venues being completed in time for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the 2004 Games in Athens, and the 2006 Games in Torino.

Acutely aware of this, the board and staff at VANOC have, since day one, promised to have the venues for the 2010 Olympics ready as much as two years prior to the Games. And to their credit, they are, in the VANOC mantra, “on time and on budget.”

One of the prime motivations for this has been to give Canadian athletes — who came away from the previous two Olympics in Canada without a single gold medal — every opportunity to train and compete in or on the facilities prior to 2010, and thus maximize the home-field advantage.

This plan has been backed up, initially by the LegaciesNow program and currently by the Own The Podium plan, which have put new money and resources into finding and training Canadian athletes. Deepening the pool of Canadian athletic talent and ensuring those athletes are given every opportunity to be their best in 2010 has also been part of Olympic organizers’ philosophy from the beginning.

And from the vantage point of May 2007, there is no reason to doubt that the 2010 Olympic competitions themselves will come off marvelously. There will be worries about not enough snow or too much snow, questions about whether the fog will ever rise to allow alpine racers to see the Weasel and Fallaway. But the Winter Games take place over 17 days, which is enough time to wait for the weather to change — which several previous Games organizers have had to do.

So while VANOC still has lots to do in the next 995 days, a lot of careful, long-term planning has gone into making sure the Olympic and Paralympic events of 2010 are a spectacular show and Canadian athletes come away with lots of medals.

And that, really, is where VANOC’s mandate runs out. After the Games are over just about everyone involved in the organization moves on to something else.

That’s not the case with the host communities or the host province. We, too, are madly preparing for 2010, but it’s also up to us to ensure that the Olympics are more than a 17-day party, and that the billions of dollars invested by governments and corporations preparing for and putting on the Olympics continue to earn a return in the years after 2010.

The Italians provided the most recent example of what happens when you don’t do this. Torino Chamber of Commerce people have talked about how uncoordinated efforts, left too late, and petty jealousies among various organizations meant they missed opportunities to leverage the 2006 Games to their advantage. The agency that represents Piedmont wines and specialty food producers, for instance, wasn’t allowed to participate in TOROC open houses held in neighbouring countries to create awareness of the Olympics.

By the summer of 2005, Torino business people were already well aware of the opportunities they had missed. And polls showed awareness of the Games was very low — even within Italy.

But it’s not always easy to leverage the Games within the rules the IOC and organizing committees have put in place. British Columbia’s Acting Auditor General Arn van Iersel underlined this in his report last fall. “The Province is not regarded by VANOC as a domestic sponsor of the Games — even though the Province is the sole underwriter of the Games and is contributing an amount far in excess of VANOC’s Tier 1 sponsors who are able to use the brand in their own advertising,” van Iersel wrote. Indeed, while VANOC’s official government partners — Canada, British Columbia, the City of Vancouver and the Resort Municipality of Whistler — show the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic logos on the homepages of their websites, their affiliated marketing arms — the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism B.C., Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Whistler — may not.

A return on investment also includes planning for Olympic venues after 2010. As van Iersel wrote of the Whistler Nordic Centre: “The post-Games business plan… recommended add-on options such as additional trail development, a sizable day lodge, and food and beverage concessions so that post-Games revenues could be maximized.” Those plans have been scaled back, with the total length of trails reduced from 75 km to 26 km. “This will affect the ability of that venue to generate the revenues anticipated in the post-Games business plan,” the acting auditor general wrote last fall.

Now, of course, the 26 km of “legacy trails” are being reviewed in light of grizzly bears in the area.

Grizzlies, and the environment that sustains them, are an important long-term consideration. So, too, is the financial viability of the Nordic centre, which B.C. taxpayers are ultimately responsible for.

Planning for the years beyond 2010, which is our responsibility as hosts, should include both the 26 km of legacy trails and the grizzlies.