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Lessons learned on the slopes

World Cup test events a success for Olympic organizers
Standing room only Germany's Maria Riesch sails over Hot Air on her way to the women's super G finish line on Sunday, with a crowd of thousands looking on. Photo by Dave McColm.

Olympic officials are looking at ways to get more spectators along the alpine downhill courses, build more features for the racers, and are checking their plans for spectator access to the venue after the World Cup downhill test event last weekend.

They are also breathing a sigh of relief since the event, co-hosted with Alpine Canada and the International Ski Federation (FIS), was held mostly under clear skies. It is the first time Whistler has hosted a World Cup in 13 years after weather caused the cancellation of three consecutive World Cups in the ‘90s and led to the resort losing its downhill event.

However, the good weather also meant that the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC) did not get to put their course preparation team of close to 900 volunteers to the test in adverse conditions.

“You kind of want a little bit of the weather to test the people,” said Tim Gayda, VANOC’s vice president of sport.

“But in the end… from an event perspective, and the television, and the crowds it was good to have that weather.”

Earlier this month, during the Pontiac GMC Canadian Championships on Whistler, VANOC volunteers working alongside the famous Whistler Weasel Workers had their fill of challenging weather with huge snowfalls and poor visibility.

“I think the Canadian Championships was a good lesson,” said Gayda.

“It had a tonne of weather they had to deal with. The volunteers got run ragged and you can’t keep that pace up forever. You have to cycle these people out. They have to get rest. Seventeen days of the Olympics can be a very long time if you get tough weather.”

All but about 160 of the volunteers for the World Cup were from the Sea to Sky region. Gayda said he expects that at Games time about 1,200 to 1,400 volunteers will be needed for the alpine events and 25 snow cats will be there to help move snow.

“You definitely ramp up bodies and cats to make sure you can deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at you,” he said.

There were some reports that a few racers found the World Cup speed courses, approved by the FIS, not challenging enough.

Gayda said those comments should be taken with “a grain of salt.”

However, he added, VANOC and FIS are considering using snow to create more features on the courses for the Games.

“The vast majority of athletes were really impressed with the track, that’s the feedback we got pretty much across the board,” he said.

“We are not going to be changing anything in terms of the physical contouring of the track, but obviously they did learn some lessons about where they could put in features on both men’s and ladies’ tracks and that is something we will be looking at as we move to 2010.”

Issues also arose around spectator access to the finish line area and the World Cup course as the competition got up and running. Early in the week spectators had to hike up a snowy hill to get to the finish line.

“There were guest concerns with the lack of access and the fact that you had to walk up the slope,” said Stuart Rempel, senior vice president of marketing for Whistler-Blackcomb.

By the weekend, bus transportation was being provided to the finish line for everyone – not just the media and the VIPs.

Gayda also said that the uphill hike in and out will not be on snow at Games time, but rather it will on pavement or on gravel and it’s likely there will be an open-air gondola put in as well.

Whistler-Blackcomb was also concerned about the lack of on-course viewing, which was due mostly to the geography of the mountain when both the Men’s and Women’s World Cup races are running at the same time.

Rempel would like to see more spectator viewing along the edges.

“I think there was a great finish-line experience for either the people that did hike up or took the transportation,” he said.

“But on the mountain the viewing pods were quite limited. Certainly we would love to see on-mountain viewing during the Games as long as VANOC security would allow that. We would really hope to see that come to fruition during the actual Games.”

Said Gayda: “From the Federation, to the athletes, to us, everyone wants to see people up there.”

During the Games period, which runs from Feb. 12-28, VANOC also worked with Environment Canada weather experts to practice forecasting for the Olympics.

“They are accurate and there is nothing more important to us right now than an accurate forecast,” said Gayda.

Recently at the World Cup freestyle event on Cypress Mountain the forecasters were able to predict a much needed break in the soggy weather.

“They nailed it to a tee about when the fog would turn into snow, and when the snow would turn into blue sky, and that is how they got the aerial (qualifier) off,” said Gayda.

Overall, VANOC and Whistler-Blackcomb considered the World Cup event a success.

Rempel, a self-designated one-man research team during the Cup, said guests, athletes, officials, media and staff were all excited by the event.

“I asked lots of coaches and racers and officials and the press and it just kept coming back that, wow, people are friendly here,” said Rempel, adding that the media coverage reached millions of people in Europe – a market that Whistler has missed as it has not hosted a World Cup since 1995.

“This was a significant media opportunity for Whistler in Europe, having not hosted World Cup for some time,” he said.

“We reached millions of people in Europe with a really great Whistler and British Columbia message about what a great place this is.”

And the media was not just focused on the event, said Rempel. Many asked about the plans for the Peak-to-Peak Gondola and other Whistler related stories.

“What we need to do is take advantage of these media opportunities to tell the world about how great this place is and how great British Columbia is for tourism,” he said.

“We want to hold the Games and host the world here, but at the end of the day the Games is the greatest opportunity to promote tourism in British Columbia that we will ever, ever have.”

This week also saw the first of two visits this year by the International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission to Vancouver and Whistler.

While in town the Commission will see the physical progress made on venues, meet with provincial politicians, and undertake an in-depth review of VANOC’s sport, marketing and media services planning to date.

IOC president Jacques Rogge also spoke at the Vancouver Board of Trade’s luncheon Wednesday.