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Olympic momentum finally building

After thirsting for details about the Olympics for so long - years, it seems - it's all coming quickly now. And so is enthusiasm for the Games.

After thirsting for details about the Olympics for so long - years, it seems - it's all coming quickly now.

And so is enthusiasm for the Games.

Last week's 100-day countdown celebration drew more than 2,000 people to the conference centre, when organizers were expecting about 600. But it was more than just another opportunity for a free piece of cake that drew people; those who came were genuinely excited about the Games. They signed a banner wishing Canadian athletes good luck. They listened to local Olympians talk about their preparations. And they heard Mayor Ken Melamed, clearly moved by the turnout, describe the emotional journey to Greece and back to retrieve the Olympic flame.

The torch relay itself, which started two weeks ago, seems to be catching the attention and pulling the heartstrings of Canadians as it passes from town to town. There are a handful of cynics who are trying to flog their torches on eBay, but for the most part the relay is inspiring people and making the Olympic ideals a little more tangible to Canadians.

The flame and the torch relay - sponsored by Coke and RBC - are symbolic elements of the Games but VANOC has done a masterful job of linking symbolism, patriotism and idealism while taking the torch to nearly every corner of the country. Offering key media personalities in every significant market the chance to run with the torch has helped spread enthusiasm for the Games.

And Canadians seem to be relishing the opportunity to get behind the Olympics. The couple of hundred protestors who disrupted the first day of the torch relay in Victoria didn't do themselves or anyone else who questions the Games proud. Many of the protestors wore scarves or balaclavas to hide their identities - from who or what is not clear. They overplayed their hand and helped sew intolerance of further protests among the general public. At least for the time being.

The enthusiasm shown at the 100-day countdown and for the torch relay follow on a number of other momentum-building steps this fall. The exclusive offer of tickets to Sea to Sky corridor residents was one such step. The release of the second phase of the transportation plan, the completion of highway upgrades and the TCUP applications gave people a better understanding of how things are going to work and what is going to happen during the Games. The military exercises and even luger Regan Lauscher's blog posting helped bring home to Whistlerites that the Olympics really are going to happen.

So what will Whistler do with this enthusiasm in the next two and a half months? How do we take advantage of the momentum?

The first thing may be to recognize that the Olympics themselves are a brief, 17-day frenzy of events, followed by 10 days of the inspirational Paralympics. It will all go by quickly.

But within those two intense periods there will be ebbs and flows. Interest in hockey, for example, will build over the Games period, but for other sports and events there will be sudden, perhaps unexpected, highs and lows.

And the ebb and flow will be affected by the people who come to visit Whistler. If Norwegians win a few medals and there is a sizeable contingent of Norwegian fans here, their enthusiasm will affect the whole town.

Some of the foreign media preparing for the Olympics are already proclaiming Whistler will be the focal point of the Games, the place that embodies what the Winter Olympics are really about. If that is the case, if Whistler becomes the place to be during the Games, are we prepared for more people? Is there a way for more people to come to Whistler?

There are a lot of factors aligning that suggest the Games could really be the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Whistler that was part of the impetus for the bid in the first place. But as VANOC CEO John Furlong said last week, "We are nowhere nearly finished. We have 90 to 100 days of seriously difficult work in front of us that will require the best effort that you can imagine."

Furlong was speaking of VANOC, but he could have been speaking about Whistler.

The early opening of Whistler Mountain this weekend will help build excitement for the winter ahead and put some people to work earlier than they might have expected. Maintaining that excitement over the winter is important. At times it may also be a challenge. But there won't be another winter like this one. Whistler needs to make the most of it.