July 25, 2003 Features & Images » Feature Story

First Person: Steve Podborski 

The Games of our lives

Whistler resident Steve Podborski is a bronze medalist from the 1980 Winter Olympics, World Cup downhill champion in 1982 and the most successful male ski racer in Canadian history. He was also executive director of international relations for the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation and was part of the official presentation to the IOC in Prague on July 2, where Vancouver-Whistler were awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He recently sat down with Pique reporter Clare Ogilvie to discuss the Olympics and what the 2010 Games will mean for Whistler.

Pique: How long have you been involved in bringing the Games to Vancouver and Whistler?

Podborski : I began to be involved in the bid in the domestic phase when Charmaine Crooks, one of the IOC members for Canada, asked me to become involved with the athletes’ committee (five years ago).

I ended up running the athletes’ committee and then through a series of circumstances ended up sitting on the board of the 2010 Bid Corporation.

We ended up winning (the domestic bid to host the 2010 Games) against Quebec City and Calgary with the catch phrase "international winability."

We felt we had a chance internationally to take forward a bid that would capture the imagination of the IOC and five years later it looks like we were right.

The bid has changed somewhat since then but the founding principles of having two athlete’s villages, one in Vancouver and one in Whistler, and having the Games focused on athletes and sport has remained true throughout. If I were to make it really simple that would be why we succeeded.

Pique: You are a world-renowned athlete yourself. What is it about the Olympics that is so appealing to people all over the world?

Podborski: I think the Olympics in the best of ways are iconic. It represents the very finest in sporting achievement. It is not a race every weekend or a race every year. It is an event every four years and it isn’t about standing alone it is about everyone in winter sport, in this case, who is the best in the world being there together to compete.

For me it is typified in the Opening Ceremony where you parade in. I realized that the best athletes in Canada surrounded me and then I realized that I was with the best athletes in the world and I was one of them. At that stage nobody has played yet… so anyone could win, so it is the best of times in the Games.

For me the Olympics represents this chance for all the best to get together and be celebrated properly.

Pique: When you talk about celebrating the athletes are you talking about celebrating how they have stayed true to their dream through years or hard work, preparation and competition?

Podborski : I think to a large degree that is true. I think that the opening ceremony and lighting the flame are icons. They are things that point to the best things in humanity. Certainly nothing is perfect in this world but the Games represent the hope that we can get there.

The striving of the athletes is humanity striving for its best. And this is not something that happens just today – you don’t just get up and say I’m going to do my best today. You have been doing your best for years and years of your life and of your family’s life. In some ways this (odyssey) is almost identical to us winning the Games themselves. I mean we spent half a decade or more on this one and if you count the other bids we made before this one we have spent many, many decades trying to get the Games in Vancouver and Whistler. We have finally succeeded. It is a gold medal and it was a tough win, and every medal is.

The Games can be seen, and I think they should be seen, as an iconic symbol of the best of what the communities can be and that is why it is so important to protect it and to do it right.

In our case our vision was that many of the most important parts of it were on the athletic side and the sporting side. If we had villages that were close to the events, if we had venues that were properly designed and the right size for the spectators and for the Olympic family and the athletes, then that would make sense to the rest of the world and the IOC members.

If we had a vision that included things like employee housing and turning the villages into places where people could live afterward, and a vision where the venues would be funded so little kids who have never been near a long track oval or a ski jump could go both before and after the Games, if all those things were included in our vision then that would be worthy of an Olympics and in the end that turned out to be true.

It is easy to have these big visions but the reality is can you apply these to the kid next door? And that is what has happened here.

When we started the bid phase internationally we set aside some money in a fund known as LegaciesNow. We had $5 million to spend on athletes, trying to get kids to the podium in 2010. We went to Kimberley and sent half-a-dozen kids to the luge track in Calgary and ended up with two of them in the top 10 in the North American juniors.

We also did a jumping camp here in Whistler and it ended up that four kids, including mine, went to Calgary to go off the ski jump.

I didn’t watch and I didn’t even think about going. I have this tremendous fear of heights and so I was delighted when they came back. They said the scariest thing they have even done was to let go of that bar, but they did it.

And the kid next door wants to go in the luge in the Games and she can’t wait for a track to be built here.

All those things will happen now that we have the Games and there is money set aside. There has also been a $110 million endowment fund set aside for the sport facilities in Whistler and Vancouver so they will be able to be used before, during, and after the Games.

So everyday kids who live in a little town will have a chance to go off the jumps or down the track, as will the finest athletes in the world.

The athletes can now come here and go in World Championships and World Cups and the Olympics because we will have an Athletes Centre in the Athletes Village with 400 beds. We now have the ability for them to come and stay here without it costing them a fortune in scarce Whistler hotel beds.

We want to have high performance sport do well and that is vitally important and I hope it continues to grow in importance in Canada.

Just as an aside people have said, "Do we need two winter sporting centres in Canada? After all we have one in Calgary."

I say absolutely. We need one in Vancouver and Whistler, we need one in Toronto, and Calgary and one in Quebec and one even further east so that we become truly a sporting nation.

We need to make sport part of our culture by having bricks and mortar and money to support it.

The Games can and do make dreams literally come true.

You cannot imagine doing it – you only dream about it, but then it can become real because funding for the facilities means that athletes can train to reach their goals.

Pique: Are you hoping that your kids will compete in the Games?

Podborski : When you have a guy like me around all the time going in the Olympics is just something you can do. It is not something that is impossible to achieve.

It is just something that you can do and I think that sort of goes through our neighbourhood. That’s why I think it is so important to have athletes in the community so that people don’t think it is only super humans who do this. We are real people.

I’d be delighted if my kids competed. I think sport is an excellent way to find your way through life with fewer potential downsides than many other choices.

Pique: What will the Games bring to this community and what challenges do you see being associated with the event for Whistler?

Podborski : When we first started five years ago Whistler was really, really pumping along with great snow years and everything was great and people would say "Why would we want these Games?" I would remind them that in 1985 Whistler was effectively bankrupt.

There were big holes in the ground and the town had to go to the provincial government and say, "Please bail us out," which they did.

I remember that. I was here.

It is not like 15 years ago we would have been unhappy to have the Games. We would have been dying to have the Games as things can go wrong and we have seen that recently with all the challenges the resort has faced.

The Olympic Games aren’t just a small thing; they are a big thing. You become part of this pantheon of cities. You can talk to people and they can name Olympic cities.

Whistler has a lot going for it and we deserve to go there and we can hold a fabulous Games.

But it is more than just the mere practical tourism benefits that are a good thing. What it will do is help Vancouver and Whistler realize that we are great. We are not just a good place – we are great.

Canadians, for whatever reason, seem to think that we can’t, aren’t or won’t be the best and I personally don’t believe that at all.

So I have striven throughout my life to help us figure that out and this is another great success.

The challenges are many. We have to manage the process. It is not done. All the way through we have to be vigilant and look hard at every decision we make down the road. It is simple to take the easy path. It is like getting up in the morning if you are an athlete and saying to yourself, "I need a rest day today." Well maybe you don’t. So you need a plan and you have to stick with it.

Pique: There is still a ripple of fear running through the community that there will be corruption, scandals, and cost overruns. What can you say to those concerned about this?

Podborski : When I got involved in this it was me; Steve and my reputation. All the way through I was watching to see if anyone was going to (lead the bid into trouble) because they would be dragging me with it. But it hasn’t been like that. The work that we have done has been tremendous, and the international relations have been done right.

All the way along it has been done right and so I think that foundation and the basis of how we did this is "good" and I think it will continue in that way. You have to be vigilant and you have to continue to ride that horse all the way along. You can’t just say, "OK we did it" and stop watching. But the foundation is in place.

Pique: Do you want to remain involved?

Podborski : I’d love to. If you want to stay involved in the athletic world, if you are part of the amateur athletic world, the Olympics is the big one. So having the Olympics in the town where I want to live – well yeah, I think I’d like to stay involved.

Pique: What was Prague like during the decision of the International Olympic Committee?

Podborski : I knew more than most in the world and not as much as some, but when we were watching this process of them voting and we learned that Salzburg was out that more or less matched what I thought would happen.

(In the first ballot July 2 Pyeongchang won 51 votes, Vancouver received 40 and Salzburg got 16. In the second vote Vancouver won the 2010 Games with 56 and Pyeongchang received 53.)

Salzburg was seen to have lost their way but the Koreans were very strong – they never wavered. They had all kinds of good things going for them, the will and the means and that is what we had said all along the way.

It was a little closer than I would have liked. Despite this voice inside me saying we were going to win I was absolutely petrified. I couldn’t have been more scared. I mean when I stand in the start gate at a ski race, even though I am taking my life in my hands, they are my hands. But in this case it was out of our control.

The more you invest in something the greater the reward. There is, I guess a limit to how happy you can be, but we were pretty much as happy as we could be when we heard we won.

Actually when everybody jumped up I sat there and just said, "Oh, thank God," then I jumped up. It was relief as much as it was joy.

It was just one of those moments when everyone needed a hug. I mean how often do you hug the Prime Minister?

This sort of thing lays people bare and it was certainly a great culmination to a lot of work.

We really pulled out all the stops.

I think if you could typify what this bid committee was it was one that did as much as was possible.

In Canadian terms we brought out the big hitters. We had the Prime Minister, we had Wayne Gretzky, we had Premier Gordon Campbell, and we had the mayors, we had the First Nations Chiefs and we had four Olympians there. We did whatever it took. We did whatever was right to do. There was nothing left on the table to be done.

Pique: Do you think that is symbolic of how these Games will be run?

Podborski : Yes. We will do it right. We will do it with great Canadian style with humbleness and perfection in mind and with sport at the forefront.

Pique: Anything you would like to share with the IOC?

Podborski : I would make it abundantly clear that when we went through the Bid Book Process we did so much work that what should be understood is that we could start tomorrow. The designs are done and all the approvals are in place. There is nothing left to do.

This volume of work and the quality of it are something that has never been done. It has set a new standard and perhaps one that can’t be achieved again. What it will do is ensure that the athletes will get their venues early and they will be able to practice on them and they will be great after the Games too.

We just played it the whole way through on our terms and we won Canadian.

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