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Olympic movement - it's in the details

Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the emotional side of the Torino Olympics, including the record number of medals won by Canadians and the handover of the Olympic flag to Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, what lessons can Whistler take fro

Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the emotional side of the Torino Olympics, including the record number of medals won by Canadians and the handover of the Olympic flag to Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, what lessons can Whistler take from the 2006 Games?

This is, naturally, a subjective exercise, but for starters let’s look at the physical layout of things.

The 2006 Winter Olympics had events at nine different mountain venues spread over five different towns. There were reports from Torino about the difficulties in getting to "the mountains", about the state of the highways and, at the beginning of the Games, bus drivers getting lost. The highways were fine, the bus drivers learned where they were going and the mountains are lovely.

The unfortunate part, from my point of view, was that things were so spread out. Transportation systems worked, but most days involved about three hours of commuting. That’s the reality when you are relying on public transportation in the mountains and have to make connecting buses and trains to get from one town to another.

Officials at Montagnedoc, the tourism authority that covers the Piedmont mountain region, recognized well before the Olympics that having events in five different towns was going to diffuse public impressions of the region. Two months from now, will the names Pragelato, Sauze d’Oulx and Bardonecchia mean much to people?

The perception is Whistler doesn’t have these problems. We are only hosting three types of competitions – alpine skiing, Nordic events and sliding events – and there will be a new and improved highway for people to get to "Whistler", the only name other than Vancouver that people will need to remember in 2010.

But it’s not quite that simple when you look at the situation in detail. There are actually six venues in the general Whistler area: the sliding centre on Blackcomb, the men’s and women’s alpine events which will finish at the Timing Flats above Creekside, and the cross country, ski jumping and biathlon venues in the Callaghan Valley.

Getting people to Whistler won’t be a problem; getting them to and from the venues in the Whistler area quickly and efficiently may be a challenge.

The footprint for each of these venues is surprisingly large. In Italy, each venue had a secured perimeter surrounding a grandstand with seating for 5,000 to 8,000 spectators. Inside each secured area were dozens of tents, housing a media centre, press conference rooms, medical facilities, race officials’ offices, official Olympic retailers, restaurants, and equipment.

Each venue also had at least three entrances: one for spectators; one for media and Olympic family members; and one for officials, volunteers and suppliers. And there was a different bus system to take each of these groups to their proper entrance. We tend to think of the Nordic centre in the Callaghan Valley as a single point, but if the same sort of bus and entrance system was applied in Whistler there could be nine different entry points to three venues in the Callaghan. And given the space that all these buses require, the logistics of moving people around suddenly become more complex than they first appear.

Then you have to get people out when the event is over. This is where Whistler can learn from Torino. Suppose, for instance, that a Canadian wins a gold medal in the downhill at the 2010 Games. You have close to 10,000 people at the Timing Flats, most of them very excited about the Canadian victory and wanting to celebrate. What do you do with them?

At most of the mountain venues in Italy they could either buy another Budweiser from one of the official vendors inside the secured area, or they could stand in line and wait for a bus to take them back to whatever town they were staying in – and if they still felt like celebrating then they might go out to a bar or take the hour-and-a-half train ride into Torino for the evening’s medal ceremony.

Having the medal ceremonies for Whistler events in Whistler will be a huge improvement. But getting people – who are in a party mood – from the Timing Flats or the Callaghan to the village quickly and efficiently will be important.

The good news, once you get them back, is the village was designed for exactly this type of thing. That wasn’t the case in many of the Italian towns that hosted Olympic events. Some of that was due to the fact venues were often far out of town, but several of them didn’t have a piazza or public square where people would naturally congregate. They may have been cute, traditional alpine towns, but the setup wasn’t conducive to public celebrations.

Interestingly, the mountain town in Italy that was best suited for a public celebration was another planned alpine resort, Sestriere.

All of these transportation and venue issues are, officially, VANOC’s to deal with. But the people who come to the alpine skiing, Nordic and sliding events in 2010 won’t be associating their experiences with VANOC, they will remember "Whistler". So if the people of Whistler want to take full advantage of the 2010 Olympics they need to take an interest in VANOC’s plans, and make sure that visitors’ experiences are positive.