Whistler hopes to raise profile of Paralympics higher than ever before 

VANOC learning from Athens Paralympics

Officials with the 2010 Winter Games are determined to make sure that Whistler’s Paralympics will raise the profile of the event higher than any other Games to date.

"We will work really hard to drive the awareness," said John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, who is in Athens this week on a fact finding mission during the Paralympics.

While Athens has done a great job of hosting the Paralympics to date and the city is still "buzzing" said Furlong, Whistler’s Games will "raise the bar" by offering a compact setting and more community spirit.

"One of the great benefits the Paralympics will enjoy in 2010 will be the intimacy of Whistler," he said.

"…I think the community of Whistler is designed perfectly. The Paralympics will just be all over the community. You will feel it everywhere you go and I think it is just the perfect size for it, and I think because of that the atmosphere in the community will be absolutely extraordinary.

"Every square foot of the community will feel the event on it, and I think that is a really positive thing for the Games and it will reflect really well on us, I think, when we do it."

Added to that is the fact that the 2010 Games will offer the first ever live coverage of the Paralympics by a major American network, NBC.

VANOC team members in Athens are also getting a chance to get to know officials of the International Paralympic Committee said Maureen Douglas, director of community relations, Whistler, for VANOC.

"It’s really about building a team," she said from Athens earlier this week.

That team spirit could also be seen outside the complex which houses the Canadian Paralympians, said Douglas, as Whistler banners signed by 2,010 supporters of the Games were on display.

It also helps that Canada is considered to be one of the most accessible countries in the world when it comes to hosting the disabled.

Douglas, who has spent much of her time in Athens so far visiting venues and going to "Paralympic school", is gathering ideas to be used as Whistler prepares for the Paralympics.

With a focus on raising awareness of the event, Athens is bussing in thousands of school children to the competitions said Douglas.

"They are using school buses, but they got businesses to sponsor the gas used to cut down on the costs," she said.

That’s the kind of idea that can be transplanted to B.C., which also hopes to bring in school kids from all over the region to see the Paralympics.

All the VANOC officials quickly realized, said Douglas, that while the "scope of the Paralympics may be different the challenges are the same."

In Athens, for example, officials decided to get rid of lanes dedicated to Olympic traffic. Within two days they realized that was a mistake, said Douglas.

"The Paralympics may be smaller, but it is still adding traffic to the city and without those lanes transportation time increased, especially within the core of Athens."

There are more than 4.5 million people living in Athens, 2.5 million of them have cars. There are another 1.5 million motorbikes.

The size of the Athens Paralympics also offers valuable lessons for VANOC, said Douglas, as it is almost the same size as the 2010 Winter Olympics will be.

International Paralympic Committee officials will visit Whistler in a few months to gather more information about the planning currently on-going here.

Douglas said the IPC is anxious to get the final word on where the sledge hockey arena was going to be built.

"But they respect that the community has to have a facility that makes sense after the Games," said Douglas.

Three locations are being studied by the municipality for the sledge hockey arena: Meadow Parks Sports Centre, a village location, and a site near the athlete’s village at Cheakamus South.

VANOC officials are also in discussion with the IPC about growing the event.

Furlong said there had been preliminary discussions about adding snowboarding to the Paralympics but the decision was several months away.

Whistler will solely host the Paralympics with only the opening ceremonies being held in Vancouver.

They will run from March 12 to the 21, 2010 following the Winter Olympics.

Whistler can expect to host about 7,000 to 10,000 spectators a day during the Paralympics. There will be approximately 1,700 athletes and team officials competing from more than 40 different countries.

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