Vail, Whistler and the modern spectacle

Whistler has had a fascination and a rivalry with Vail since the mid-70s, when a pair of Whistler councillors named Raine and Watson used to hook up with amateur hockey teams touring Colorado so they could get cheap trips to ski resorts to study what made them work. Many of the concepts and principles that made Vail so successful were incorporated into the original plans for the Whistler Village and into marketing the fledgling resort in the Coast Mountains.

In the early ’90s Whistler started to take a run at Vail in the annual magazine rankings of ski resorts. And by the mid-90s Whistler’s success had reached a level that Vail people came here to study what Whistler was doing that had made the northern ski town such a rival to America’s premier ski resort. (After a helicopter tour one Vail executive reportedly said: "Well, I guess we need to get ourselves a glacier.")

Last month Whistler was awarded the honour of co-hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, something Vail lost when Denver residents voted against hosting the 1976 Olympics. Before he died a couple of years ago Vail founder Pete Seibert publicly lamented the fact that Vail never got the opportunity to host the Games, something he thought would have been the resort’s crowning glory.

But there are substantial differences between Vail and Whistler too, and recently some of those differences have become obvious as the sexual assault charge against basketball star Kobe Bryant begins to wind its way through the courts and the media.

Bryant was in Vail for knee surgery at the renowned Steadman Hawkins surgical clinic (the first clue that this couldn’t be a Whistler story) when the alleged sexual assault occurred. On Wednesday he made his first court appearance in Eagle, a town about 30 miles from Vail where many of the people who work in Vail live. The fact that there is a courthouse in a town like Eagle differentiates Colorado from B.C.

It’s tempting to look at the media circus that surrounded Bryant’s first court appearance and feel a sense of moral superiority; that Canadians wouldn’t be so intoxicated with the gossip and rumours that surround such a celebrity case; that the alleged victim’s anonymity and rights would be respected. But that temptation disappears quickly when we anticipate the Willy Pickton trial and the trial of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, the two men accused of the 1985 Air India bombing. Is the Canadian justice system so superior?

Perhaps any further comparison of Whistler and Vail, in this case, is pointless. We are talking about two different countries with different systems.

But we can learn from Bryant spectacle.

While there may have been a serious crime committed, this is essentially a celebrity story that is taking place in August, a notoriously slow news time. Remember the saturation coverage of Chandra Levy’s disappearance two summers ago? (The Summer of Chandra one Washington paper dubbed it.) The mystery of her disappearance was made more titillating by the probability – eventually confirmed – that the summer intern had had an affair with a married Congressman from her hometown.

The story disappeared from the news on the morning of Sept. 11. This past winter Chandra Levy’s remains were found in a Washington park.

Gossip and celebrity have reached new status with the ubiquity, and anonymity, provided by the Internet. Chat rooms abound with opinions and unsubstantiated claims about Bryant and his 19-year-old accuser.

And earlier this week Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, waded in on national television to say that despite the fact the two principles in this case have both suffered, it will be good publicity for the NBA.

Maybe that’s how people evaluate these sorts of messes in the 21st century; what’s the bright side of all this for me? Does Bryant maintain the sympathy of his fans? Does Vail win because any publicity is good publicity? Do media outlets win through higher ratings?

But if somebody wins, somebody loses too. A sign on a pharmacy in Eagle this week indicated who was on the defensive. "Support the families with a no comment," it read.

You wonder how Whistler would do if such a spectacle happened here.


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