U.S. presence will be felt during Olympics

Canada's closest neighbour, our greatest ally, biggest trading partner, the country that sneezes and Canada catches a cold - the United States of America is going to have a strong presence in Whistler and Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Much stronger than usual.

Of course American athletes will do well. Lindsey Vonn, Seth Wescott, Apolo Anton Ohno and other World Cup champions will claim their share of Olympic medals. And regular Whistler visitors from the Seattle area and elsewhere are expected to come and cheer American athletes on.

But the American presence behind the scenes will also be substantial. Phillip Chicola is the United States Consul General in Vancouver, and it will be his office that coordinates and facilitates much of that behind the scenes work. It includes opening a satellite consulate office in Whistler during the Games.

The general purpose of a consulate is to show the flag and provide services to its citizens when needed. That may mean helping Americans through B.C.'s health care system if they get in an accident, assisting them with passport or visa issues or just providing advice.

But for the Olympics the U.S. Consulate will have other duties. They include coordinating security for American athletes, their families and United States Olympic Committee personnel.

"So there will be a number of State Department security agents who will be here to work, to coordinate and liaise between the athletes, the USOC etc. and the Vancouver police and the RCMP - working through our office pretty much directly with the... ISU," Chicola said this week.

"And then of course we will also provide, through existing channels, any security intelligence information that we have. So, I don't think that that's going to be a big thing because I think most people are not too worried about the security aspect of (things). But should there be any security threat from outside Canada that we are aware of we will certainly share that information."

There will also be federal marshals on some airplanes flying to Vancouver from the U.S., "to ensure that there's no untoward events on those airplanes."

And the number of people working in customs at YVR will be increased for the Olympic period.

"Clearly we're going to have more people coming and going, and we don't want to become a bottleneck at the airport," Chicola said.

Exactly how many Americans will come to B.C. for the Olympics is hard to predict.

"I've heard numbers of 100,000, 150,000 - who knows," said the outspoken Consul General.

"Part of the problem when you have a contiguous border is the, 'Hey, honey, let's take the kids and go up to Vancouver tomorrow' among the three and half, four million people who live in the I5 corridor... Go down the I5 all the way down to Portland and you have huge numbers of people who could be here in two, three, four hours.

"The message we've tried to get out to all these people is, you should come, but plan ahead. Don't get in your car thinking all you have to do is roll into Vancouver and you'll find a hotel room."

Chicola has been Consul General in Vancouver for just over a year, after spending much of his diplomatic career working in Latin America. From a refugee officer for the State Department in 1979 to Chargé d'Affaires in Brazil from 2005 to 2006, with postings to Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Washington and Croatia in between. The Vancouver position is substantially different for the Cuban-born diplomat.

"The relationship we have with Canada is so complex, because we have a common border," Chicola said. The border requires a lot of coordination of issues and relationships, which is part of the Consul General's role.

Crossing that border has become more complex since 9/11 and this summer's implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires anyone entering the United States to have a passport or equivalent documentation. Chicola says that's the reality of today, but he's optimistic that increased infrastructure brought about by the Olympics, such as the 10 lanes Canada now has at the Peach Arch crossing ("It would be nice, too, if they staffed all 10"), will facilitate cross-border travel. He said the U.S. will eventually have 10 lanes at Peace Arch, too.

And he has a five-letter word for people who cross the border even a couple of times a year: nexus.

One American who wouldn't have any trouble crossing the border is President Barack Obama. But Chicola said he still doesn't know if the president will be coming to the Olympics.




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