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Attracting World Cup sliding events to Whistler a challenge: Soane

Recent FIL stop only international event at the Sliding Centre this year, but track pushing for more

The 2014-15 sliding season just opened, but the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC) has already wrapped its season as a World Cup stop.

But not without young local athletes first making their mark on the international scene.

The International Luge Federation (FIL) brought its Youth A and Junior divisions to the WSC for a doubleheader from Dec. 4 through 7, and Sea to Sky competitors excelled, earning nine of Canada's dozen medals.

No other major luge, bobsleigh or skeleton events will be held at the WSC this season, but with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voting this week to allow combined bids from two countries for future Games, Whistler's $109 million track could see more action in the years to come.

Whistler Sport Legacies president and CEO Roger Soane acknowledged in a phone interview on Dec. 8 that geography is prohibitive to landing international events, especially as tracks are much closer together in Europe, creating a tighter circuit.

"It comes down to transporting equipment. To transport the sleds all over the world is a costly process as well," he said. "If they can drive between tracks, they're already cutting down on some of their expenses."

In a way, Whistler being a bit off luge's beaten path was beneficial last weekend, as two events, rather than just one, were held as part of the weekend. The Canadian Luge Association and FIL agreed that doubling up helped to make the trip worthwhile for European competitors with Canadian Luge Association executive director Tim Farstad noting FIL approached their organization about extending the event.

"They were going to have one race, and then they contacted us about doing two, and we said that's a great idea," he said. "The cost difference isn't much and you get two races out of it."

In an attempt to drum up some more events to come to the WSC, Soane said he was set to travel to Lake Placid, N.Y. on Dec. 9 to meet with FIBT (International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation) officials to talk about bringing an event back to Whistler. Soane noted North American tracks are only hosting two events this year, down from three, as one was promised to Sochi, Russia. Soane said with sliding sports, the rotation favours some entrenched venues that have annual events, while some others are in a rotation every two years.

Things could start to level out soon, though. In the face of skyrocketing costs for hosts, the IOC voted to allow two countries to team up to bid for the Games. This would not only allow existing Olympic venues to be more easily reused for future Games, but also halt new sliding venues from being constructed every four years, preventing new competitors for World Cup events being created.

"They're such an expensive venue to construct, and every time we build one, the track wants to hold races," Soane said. "The more tracks we have, the less rotation there's going to be in the future."

In a report released on Dec. 6, an anonymous IOC official told the Associated Press the organization wants to save money for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea by halting construction of the sliding centre and moving those events to an existing venue. Noting he's not overly familiar with the situation, Soane expects Japan, which last hosted in 1998, would be the likely landing spot if the events were to be moved. However, if Whistler found itself in consideration, he feels the move could work with the right situation.

"It would all come down to how it would be funded," Soane said. "We certainly couldn't fund it ourselves, but if there was funding in place, I would certainly say our legacy venues are more than capable of hosting those events."

Though no more top-level events are coming, the WSC won't sit empty. BC Luge Association and BC Bobsled and Skeleton Association BC Cup stops are on their way beginning later this month, the Skeleton Intercontinental Cup and North American Cup will take over the track for five days in January, and the Canadian Luge Association Canadian Youth Championships are slated for early March. All are repeats from the 2013-14 schedule.

Soane acknowledged there will always be some who consider the track as a "white elephant" — the WSC took in $1.1 million while costing $2.4 million to operate last fiscal year, though the gap is closing. The WSC runs with help from the $110-million Games Operating Trust (GOT).

He added the three WSL venues are always looking for more ways to keep active. New users are finding their way to the WSC, as the Russian bobsleigh team recently spent a month training at the track. And the WSL is expanding its public participation options to include plank bobsleighs, which are modified so that members of the public can safely drive them.

At the World Cup, the WSC's existence directly helped Canada boost its results, as nine of the team's 12 medals were won by Sea to Sky competitors who have taken thousands of runs on the track (see related story on page 50). Soane said the local sliders' success helps the WSC "establish credibility in the local community" and "keep the legacies alive and very current."

"It's good seeing local kids do well, because the track was built for one event. It's going to be here for a long time, and I think the sliding sports give Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor, and Canada, another opportunity to have great athletes — homegrown, home-trained athletes — on the podium in the future," Soane said. "It's what the legacy's all about."

While there was certainly an element of home track advantage at play, Farstad said the sheer difficulty of the local run should help benefit athletes well beyond B.C.

"They basically grew up on that track, so for them to be able to race at home on that track, they're always going to have an advantage," Farstad said. "It's the type of track that's preparing them better for the rest of the world tracks. It pushes them, and it's a little bit more difficult. When you develop on a difficult track, nothing fazes you."

Former BC Luge Association president Jim Watts noted since it was the first junior international event at the track, athletes had extra time to train at the venue. Now that there is a base level of comfort, he said, he expects an even better turnout than the approximately 80 athletes from 11 countries this weekend's event saw.

"I think next time we have an event, we'll have more countries come now that they have a level of comfort," said Watts, whose son Reid won three medals overall.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler sponsored the event with Meadow Park Sports Centre passes for all athletes (valued at approximately $640) and Whistler pins for athletes' gift bags.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said it's important to support local events of this scope, as they bring people to Whistler who wouldn't otherwise come.

"We want to ensure that the municipality has a bit of a role to play in hosting and welcoming the athletes and media," she said.

The provincial government's ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development also granted $30,000 to the event.