Test events show Whistler has room for improvement

Interest in alpine ski racing may not be what it was during the era of the Crazy Canucks, when racing was really the only measure of skiing performance and snowboarding barely existed, but the first World Cup races in Whistler in 13 years seemed particularly understated.

The four races held Feb. 21-24 on Whistler Mountain were Olympic test events, a chance for the International Olympic Committee, the International Ski Federation, Alpine Canada and VANOC to gauge how Whistler will do in two years time. Would the weather co-operate? Would VANOC and the Weasel Workers get the job done? Would the courses be suitable?

From the perspective of VANOC, the IOC, the FIS, Alpine Canada and all the other ski racing nations, these were the most important questions. As VANOC’s Cathy Priestner Allinger told the Vancouver Sun, “The focus from our end were the courses, the field of play.”

And Whistler passed with flying colours. The ski races were as close to flawless as any ski races can be. Moreover, television showed the world that it isn’t always foggy and wet in Whistler, and in fact Whistler is quite a spectacular place when the sun shines.

So from the rest of the world’s perspective, the alpine Olympic test events were a huge success. From a Whistler perspective, the four days of racing showed there is plenty of room for improvement.

The races themselves were exciting, if you were among the 2,500 or so who made it up to the Timing Flats above Creekside each day. If you weren’t at the Timing Flats you could be forgiven for thinking the races were taking place in some far-off country.

Extending the excitement and atmosphere from the finish line to the village is the challenge facing Whistler as it prepares to host Olympic test events at the Nordic centre and sliding centre next winter. There was some effort to do that with the alpine races last week, but it wasn’t successful. Many people could have spent the weekend in Whistler unaware that there were World Cup races taking place.

There was a big-screen TV in Village Square where people could view the races, but you had to get to Village Square to find that out. The screen was at the back of a stage where bands played free concerts each afternoon. That meant the screen was also behind stagehands who were folding tarps during the men’s super G. And the second run of the men’s giant slalom was accompanied by a band doing a sound check.

Music is part of most festivals and the free afternoon concerts were an attempt to broaden the Olympic test events into something more than just ski races. Unfortunately it was a disjointed effort. A free concert in the afternoon and displays by some of Alpine Canada’s sponsors are not enough to enliven the village when the actual events are several kilometres away.

The problem is one that has been building for years now: the test events, like the Olympic preparations to date, were run by VANOC, with assistance in this instance from Alpine Canada, so they met those organizations’ needs. Whistler collectively didn’t step up to make much of the opportunity. Individually, if Whistlerites wanted to be involved they volunteered.

Whistler, of course, doesn’t have to make a big deal of Olympic test events. No doubt the test events at the sliding centre next winter will show the track to be one of the best in the world, and anyone who has visited the Nordic centre has come away impressed. Both venues will look good on television, which will help boost Whistler’s profile internationally.

But like the alpine test events, the sliding and Nordic competitions take place some distance from the village. If the goal is to build some interest and enthusiasm in these events among Whistler residents and visitors — perhaps even some national pride — the energy at the race courses has to be carried over to the village.

This will be less of an issue during the Olympics because the medal ceremonies for all competitions at these three venues will take place in the village each evening. There will likely be video presentations of the medal-winning performances, the national anthems will be played, there will be fireworks followed by concerts, and there will be people from all over the world gathered in the village and prepared to celebrate.

But it’s not hard to build interest in the Olympics. What Whistler could also be doing through the test events is building its own reputation as an event host, as a supporter of Canadian athletes, as a centre of mountain culture, as even just a fun place to return to. These aren’t issues for VANOC or sports organizations (and their sponsors) to address. These are issues, and opportunities, for Whistler to embrace.

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